Obama: Encouraged on Israel, Palestinians
August 18, 2009 - 1:32 PMPresident Barack Obama said Tuesday he is encouraged by progress in U.S. efforts to bring Israel and the Palestinians back to the negotiating table, thanking his Egyptian counterpart for help in working for a breakthrough.
The president was responding to a question about reports that Israel had stopped granting permission for new settlements in the West Bank, even though projects in progress were continuing.
Obama has made a resumption of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians one of his key foreign policy goals, hoping a breakthrough there would lead to wider agreements among the Jewish state and the Arab world.
To that end, Obama has demanded that the Israeli government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu freeze construction of Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, land that the Palestinians want for a state. Netanyahu's public refusal has opened a rare rift between the two traditionally close allies.
"The Israeli government has taken discussions with us very seriously," Obama said, adding that he was "encouraged by what I am seeing on the ground."
"All parties," he said, "have to take steps to restart serious negotiations," including Palestinians efforts to end the incitement of violence against Israel.
"We are moving in the right direction," said visiting Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, "and the Arab states are ready to help if the Israelis and the Palestinians returned to peace talks."
Mubarak said the settlement issue was central to a resumption of Israeli-Palestinian talks and a wider warming of ties among the Jewish state and the larger Arab world.
Talking a traditionally tough stand, Mubarak also said he had told the Israelis that they must "forget temporary solutions or temporary borders."
The Arabs, backing a long-standing peace offer from Saudi Arabia, have said they were willing to recognize Israel and make peace if the Jewish state returns to its pre-1967-War borders during which it annexed all of Jerusalem and captured the West Bank.
The 81-year-old Mubarak, who has ruled Egypt for 28 years, also indicated during the photo opportunity with reporters that he would seek another term in elections two years hence.
"I have entered into the elections based on a platform that included reforms and therefore we have started to implement some of it and we still have two years to implement it," Mubarak said, volunteering that he and Obama had spoken about U.S. concerns about repression of political opposition in Egypt.
Mubarak looked robust despite earlier reports that he had become increasingly frail and was preparing his 46-year-old son as a successor. Egypt has an exploding population, ravaged by widespread poverty and high unemployment. He has kept a lid on Egypt's burgeoning social and religious pressures through heavy repression of much of the political opposition in Egypt, especially the Islamic fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, the most organized group challenging his rule.
Mubarak had been a regular visitor to Washington during the Clinton administration. Then he stayed away to protest the U.S. invasion of Iraq and President George W. Bush's intensified pressure to open the Egyptian political system and moderate its human rights policies.
While Egypt and Israel made peace more than 30 years ago, their accord has never reached stated goals of a warm relationship that would overcome historic distrust between the Jewish state and the most populous Arab country.
And the hardline Netanyahu has shown little willingness to give ground, regardless of Mubarak's moves against weapons and money smuggling through tunnels under Egypt's border with Gaza, the Mediterranean strip of territory controlled by Hamas. Despite the crackdown, Mubarak has failed to persuade the radical Palestinian faction to moderate and reconcile with the mainstream Palestinian leadership in the West Bank.
On another pressing U.S. policy issue, Mubarak said he and Obama talked at length about concerns that Iran is trying to build a nuclear weapon. Mubarak, like Obama, the Israeli leadership and many Arab countries, sees a nuclear-armed Iran as a "game-changing" possibility that could thoroughly upend the balance of power in the Middle East.
While noting they talked about the issue, neither leader indicated how they intended to move forward.
"He will want to know from Obama what is Plan B if U.S. diplomatic outreach efforts to Iran are not successful," said David Makovsky, an author and Middle East expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Obama has sought to establish a dialogue with the Iranians on the nuclear issue, but he has set a September deadline for it to respond. A next U.S. step would center on efforts to enforce tougher U.N. sanctions aimed at punishing Iran economically and further isolating the Islamic regime, which claims it is developing the technology for nuclear generation of electricity, not a bomb.
Israel has spoken openly of a military attack on Iran's nuclear facilities but is widely believed to have agreed to stand down to give the U.S. policy time to work.
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