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Obama talks of progress on Israeli settlements

in.reuters.com

Obama talks of progress on Israeli settlements

WASHINGTON – july 14 – U.S. President Barack Obama indicated to Jewish-American leaders on Monday that the United States and Israel are making progress in bridging their differences on the issue of Jewish settlements.

Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have differed sharply on Israeli settlements on the occupied West Bank. The United States wants a complete halt to settlement construction, a demand that has opened the most serious rift in U.S.-Israeli relations in a decade.

Israel has raised the possibility it might temporarily refrain from starting new building projects — while continuing many under way — in return for steps toward a regional peace agreement, including progress on Arab states normalizing relations with Israel.

U.S. envoy George Mitchell and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak have conducted a series of talks on the issue.

Obama, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and political adviser David Axelrod sat down with 16 Jewish-American leaders to discuss the Middle East and other issues.

“He (Obama) said that there is more progress than appears in the negotiations and spoke quite positively of the tracks between Mitchell and Barak and between the two administrations,” said one participant, Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

One major obstacle has been Israel’s insistence on allowing some “natural growth” of existing settlements.

Hoenlein said Obama indicated that “there might be some opening for an understanding between the two parties. I don’t know what the understanding is.”

Jeremy Ben-Ami, executive director of J Street, a pro-Israel lobby group in Washington, said Obama stressed that further expansion of settlements was not in the interest of the United States or Israel.

“The president said that the gaps are narrowing and he did allude to progress and his hope that an agreement would be reached. He definitely alluded to that,” Ben-Ami said.

He said members of the group urged Obama to visit Israel.

Rabbi Steven Wernick, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, said Obama stressed that he was also pressing the Palestinians to take steps necessary for peace.

A spokesman for Stephen Savitsky, president of the Orthodox Union, said there was concern about what appeared to be one-sided pressure on Israel. The spokesman said Obama indicated that he intends in coming weeks to make more public what is being done to nudge the Palestinians as well.

A White House statement said Obama “reiterated his unshakable commitment to Israel’s security, and reiterated his commitment to working to achieve Middle East peace.”

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Israel, Palestinians hold ‘positive’ talks

AMMAN: Israeli and Palestinian negotiators held a “positive” first face-to-face meeting in more than 15 months on Tuesday, saying they remain committed to a two-state solution but that full-blown talks are still some way off.

“The talks and atmosphere were positive,” Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh told reporters after the talks in Amman between Israel’s chief negotiator Yitzhak Molcho, his Palestinian counterpart Saeb Erakat and Palestinian negotiator Mohammed Shtayyeh.

Washington too welcomed what it described as a “positive development” after months of deadlock in peace talks over Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s refusal in 2010 to renew a freeze on most settlement construction in the occupied West Bank.

Judeh, who hosted the meeting in the Jordanian capital, voiced cautious optimism. “The two sides expressed their commitment to a two-state solution. We do not want to raise the level of expectations, but at the same time we do not want to minimise the importance of this meeting,” he said.

“The Palestinians submitted a paper on borders and security. The Israeli side received it, promising to study it and respond,” he said.

The minister said Jordan, which has a 1994 peace treaty with Israel, will host further talks between the two sides.

“Any announcement about the meetings will be made by Jordan. You might hear about the meetings and you might not,” he said, expecting “progress and things to be positive by the end of this month.”
Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas said on Tuesday the outcome of the meeting would soon be clear.

“We will know today or in the coming two days,” he said, indicating that they were looking to find “the right foundation” to resume talks with Israel.
“This is a good thing and we hope Jordanian efforts work,” he was quoted as saying by Jordan’s state-run Petra news agency.
Earlier this week, Israeli cabinet minister Dan Meridor said the fact that a meeting was taking place was “a positive development” but that it did not in itself constitute a return to direct talks.Erakat made the same point in an interview with Voice of Palestine radio.
“This meeting will be devoted to discussing the possibility of making a breakthrough that could lead to the resumption of negotiations. Therefore, it will not mark the resumption of negotiations,” he said on Monday.

Direct talks ground to a halt in September 2010, when an Israeli freeze on new West Bank settlement construction expired and Netanyahu declined to renew it.

“We will see what the quartet’s position will be in this meeting and if it is willing to seriously address the obstacles to the peace process and negotiations put by Israel,” PLO secretary general Yasser Abed Rabbo told Voice of Palestine.

Abbas met with US envoy David Hale in Ramallah late on Monday and told him there would be no resumption of talks unless Israel froze settlement construction and accepted the 1967 borders as the basis for peace talks, a Palestinian official told AFP.

The Quartet, which comprises the European Union, Russia, the United Nations and the United States, has been trying to draw the two sides back to the negotiating table, asking them for comprehensive proposals on territory and security.

White House spokesman Jay Carney acknowledged the difficulties President Barack Obama faced in getting a resumption of talks.

“He is doing everything he can to bring them together at the table,” Carney said.

“And this is obviously a challenging issue — it has been so for a long time. But the president’s very focused on doing what he can to make it happen.”

Abed Rabbo said Washington wanted the talks to restart “without any preconditions or promises on settlement expansion.
“This does not fulfil the conditions for a resumption of negotiations nor does it enable any negotiations to succeed,” he said.
The meeting sparked an angry reaction from the Hamas movement which has controlled the Gaza Strip since ousting Abbas’s forces in 2007.
“Going to such a meeting is only betting on failure,” Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri told AFP on Monday.
The leftist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine also criticised the meeting, calling it a “fatal error” which would force the Palestinians back into another pointless waiting game. (AFP)

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U.S., Israel on collision course over settlements

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U.S., Israel on collision course over settlements

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WASHINGTON  – The Israeli government’s plan to approve more construction in Jewish settlements drew a sharp rebuke from the Obama administration on Friday, further complicating U.S. efforts to revive Middle East peace talks.

The White House reacted with dismay to word that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will authorize the building of several hundred new settler homes on occupied land before considering a freeze on such construction.

President Barack Obama has been pressuring Netanyahu’s right-leaning government to halt settlement building, a major obstacle in the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process, as a prelude to a resumption of the negotiations.

The Obama administration has been holding out the prospect of a three-way meeting in New York of Obama, Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas later this month if there is sufficient progress toward resuming peace efforts.

“We regret the reports of Israel’s plans to approve additional settlement construction,” White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said.

“As the president has said before, the United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued settlement expansion and we urge that it stop. We are working to create a climate in which negotiations can take place, and such actions make it harder to create such a climate,” Gibbs said in a statement.

It was another sign that the most serious rift in U.S.-Israeli relations in a decade will be hard to bridge as Obama tries to meet his pledge to make Middle East peacemaking a higher priority than his predecessor, George W. Bush.

The Palestinians insisted they would accept nothing less than a total freeze on settlement construction in the occupied West Bank, land they want as part of a future state.

Netanyahu is also under pressure from many lawmakers in his rightist Likud party to resist Obama’s push for a suspension of settlement building.

A Netanyahu aide, who declined to be identified by name, said that after the several hundred housing units are authorized, the Israeli leader would be prepared to consider a moratorium on building that lasted a few months.

Israel is already building some 2,500 housing units at West Bank settlements that are in various stages of construction.

Palestinian officials say they will resume talks only if Israel stops all building within Jewish enclaves in the West Bank, in keeping with a 2003 U.S.-backed “road map” peace plan that also called on the Palestinians to rein in militant attacks on Israelis.

Gibbs said, however, that the administration appreciated what it sees as Israel’s “stated intent to place limits on settlement activity and will continue to discuss this with the Israelis as these limitations are defined.”

But Nabil Abu Rdainah, an aide to Abbas, said: “A partial settlement freeze is not enough.”

Despite the latest development, a U.S. official said the Obama administration believed it was possible to reach a deal to resume overall peace talks, which have been stalled since December.

“We still think we can bring this phase to a positive conclusion, including action by Israel on settlements, in the next few weeks,” the official said.

Obama’s Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, met Netanyahu aides in New York this week to work on a deal to resume talks in time for a possible announcement at the U.N. General Assembly in late September. The official said Mitchell was expected to go to the region again possibly late next week.

Obama has taken the public stance that Israel must halt all settlement activity, including so-called “natural growth” under which new homes are built within existing enclaves to accommodate growing settler families.

But U.S. officials privately have hinted at flexibility on the issue if the two sides agree to a compromise. Palestinians say settlements, built on land Israel occupied in a 1967 war, would deny them a viable state.

The Obama administration is seeking to bridge the Israeli and Palestinian positions and persuade Arab states to take steps towards normalizing relations with the Jewish state, but it has met resistance over who should make the first move.

Obama sees engagement in Palestinian-Israeli peacemaking as crucial to repairing America’s image in the Muslim world and drawing moderate Arab states into a united front against Iran.

(Additional reporting by Ori Lewis in Jerusalem, Ali Sawafta in Ramallah and Steve Holland and Arshad Mohammed in Washington).

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