WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama began a new effort Wednesday to coax Israelis and Palestinians toward peace, telling Middle East leaders on the eve of renewed negotiations that with sustained American help, a comprehensive deal can be sealed within a year.
Obama, who presided over a day of meetings at the White House, acknowledged obstacles to the talks and widespread pessimism after decades of failure. But the president and his team also pointed to signs of progress and reasons for optimism.
“This is a moment of opportunity that must be seized,” Obama said in a Rose Garden appearance following separate meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. “They cannot afford to let it slip away.”
In a later appearance in the White House East Room, Netanyahu said he sought “a peace that will last for generations.”
“I came here today to find a historic compromise,” he said. “I’ve been making the case for Israel all my life. I didn’t come here today to win an argument; I came here to forge a peace. I didn’t come to find excuses or make them. I came to find solutions.”
Turning to Abbas, he said, “President Abbas, you are my partner in peace.” But he also signaled that Israel would insist on strong controls over security in Palestinian territory.
Abbas promised that Palestinians would “work diligently and tirelessly” to make the talks succeed. But he said Israel must freeze all settlement construction in the occupied West Bank.
Obama later hosted the two at a White House dinner, along with the leaders of Egypt and Jordan, as a prelude to direct talks today between Abbas and Netanyahu.
Today’s session will be the first face-to-face meeting between Palestinians and Israelis since talks broke down nearly two years ago.
Obama said there had been indications of confidence-building efforts between the two sides before the new round of talks, which are to include top-level meetings at two-week intervals.
In voicing a measure of optimism, Obama reflected a view among administration officials and independent experts that there may be a basis for negotiations leading to establishment of a Palestinian state that would coexist with Israel.
One reason is that, despite the slayings Tuesday of four Jewish settlers near Hebron, in the West Bank, and an attack that injured two others Wednesday near Ramallah, Palestinian violence now is at a lower level than it often has been.
In addition, Abbas’ government in the West Bank has been improving its security forces, judicial system and other institutions, as well as the territory’s economy. The Palestinian Authority leadership, including Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, is considered relatively moderate and is well-regarded by the West.
Intensive involvement by the Obama administration, in contrast to the more hands-off approach by the Bush administration, is seen as another positive factor.
Added to that is the question of time. U.S. officials believe that if the two sides do not move quickly, continued Jewish building in the West Bank and continued polarization will eliminate the possibility of completing a peace deal culminating in creation of a Palestinian state.
“There is a window of opportunity, a moment in time within which there remains the possibility of achieving a two-state solution,” George Mitchell, the U.S. peace envoy, said Tuesday.
Some Israelis also have struck an optimistic new tone. Ehud Barak, the Israeli defense minister, said this week that he believes a deal is possible and that he could foresee a solution to perhaps the most emotional issue of the talks: the division of Jerusalem.
“West Jerusalem and 12 Jewish neighborhoods that are home to 200,000 residents will be ours,” Barak told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. “The Arab neighborhoods in which close to a quarter-million Palestinians live will be theirs.”
At the White House on Wednesday, Obama met separately with Netanyahu and Abbas, and also with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan’s King Abdullah II. Those leaders have come to Washington in a show of Arab support for a peace deal, a display meant to back Abbas in the talks.
The leaders met again Wednesday evening at the White House’s Old Family Dining Room for what was described as a working dinner.
When Abbas and Netanyahu meet today, they will resume a process of formal negotiations that has been on intermittently and without success for almost 20 years, since the administration of President George H.W. Bush.
Obama offered no explanation of how the two sides could navigate around the first big threat to the talks: their disagreement over further Israeli settlement in the West Bank.
Netanyahu has indicated he is reluctant to extend a partial Israeli building moratorium that ends Sept. 26. Abbas has insisted that he will not sit at the table without a continuation of the freeze.