'Deadlock' after Obama Middle East meeting

President Obama increased the pressure on Israeli and Palestinian leaders to restart talks as he gambled on a landmark meeting to jolt the stalled peace process back to life.

Speaking before bringing the Israeli Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, and Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian President, together for talks, a stern Mr Obama warned that a sense of urgency was required to lay the foundations for peace.

“Success depends on all sides acting with a sense of urgency,” Mr Obama told reporters before sitting down for the three-way meeting. “Permanent status negotiations must begin and begin soon. It is past time to talk about starting negotiations. It is time to move forward.”

After the talks Mr Abbas and George Mitchell, the US envoy to the Middle East, indicated that little progress had been made. Yasser Abed Raddo, a Palestinian official, said that Mr Abbas had restated his demand for a complete Israeli settlement freeze. Mr Netanyahu, in turn, had demanded that the Palestinians recognise the state of Israel.

Mr Netanyahu confirmed the account, calling on Mr Abbas to recognise the Jewish state but denying that it amounted to a precondition. He blamed the Palestinians for the impasse, insisting that Israel was impatient for talks.

“The issue of settlements has to be discussed within these talks, not before,” he told CNN. “Let’s just get on with it, start the peace process.”

Expectations of a breakthrough had been described before the meeting as “lower than the Dead Sea”, a reflection of US fears that no progress would be made at all.

Before the cameras, Mr Obama coaxed the two leaders into a handshake and stood back as they gripped hands, smiling wanly but studiously avoiding each other’s eyes. Mr Obama stood between the two, clearly feeling the frost.

Palestinians have said that they will not return to talks with Israel until there is a complete freeze on settlement building in the West Bank — a stance that Washington has largely backed. Mr Netanyahu has remained intransigent, offering partial freezes unacceptable to the Palestinians.

Washington is reluctant to drop its demand for a freeze, fearing that negotiations will get nowhere if “painful concessions” are not made to create the right environment for talks. “The launching of negotiations is not a end in itself,” Mr Mitchell said after the meetings. “We need more peace and less process.”

Mr Obama made clear that the American diplomatic offensive would continue, saying that Mr Mitchell would meet Israeli and Palestinian negotiators again next week and that the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, would report back to him next month on the status of talks.


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