Obama meets with Mideast leaders ahead of peace talks

Mike McCarthy

Washington (dpa) – US President Barack Obama met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the first of a series of meetings Wednesday with leaders from the Middle East as he relaunches the peace process.

Netanyahu arrived at the White House for the private meeting with Obama that precedes separate Obama meetings with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Jordan’s King Abdullah and Egyptian President Hosny Mubarak.

Obama is expected to deliver a statement following the meetings and host a working dinner for the leaders Wednesday night.

Netanyahu and Abbas will hold the first face-to-face Israeli-Palestinian negotiations since December 2008 at the State
Department on Thursday. Those talks will be hosted by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

The talks come 18 months after Obama took office pledging to make a strong push for a peace agreement, and after his special envoy to the region, former senator George Mitchell, mediated months of indirect negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians trying to nudge them into direct talks.

The Obama administration has said it believes a settlement could be reached within a year, although the Israelis and Palestinians have expressed scepticism as to whether that timeframe is achievable.

The administration believes the talks should address thorny final status issues, including the future of Jerusalem, Palestinian demands that refugees have the right to return, final borders for a Palestinian state and Israeli settlements.

The talks began even as the Palestinian militant group Hamas claimed responsibility for an attack in the West Bank that left four Israeli settlers dead.

The initial focus of the negotiations is expected to be on Netanyahu’s moratorium on settlement construction in the West Bank due to expire on September 26. The Palestinians have said they will pull out of the peace talks unless Netanyahu extends the moratorium.

Netanyahu, however, faces the possibility his more conservative coalition partners will bolt from the government if he extends the ban. The Palestinians had originally sought a comprehensive freeze on settlements as a condition for direct talks, but agreed to join under pressure from Mitchell.

Negotiations between the two sides have been started and halted many times in the last decade. The last incarnation of direct talks began at the end of 2007 and was suspended in late 2008 as Israel headed into an election campaign that brought Netanyahu to power.