Wednesday, November 11, 2009

U.S. keeps pressure on Abbas after Netanyahu visit

(Reuters) - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may have felt some frost while visiting the White House but Washington is keeping the heat on Palestinians to resume peace talks without an Israeli settlement freeze first.

Netanyahu was ushered into the Oval Office on Monday after nightfall for a meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama at which, contrary to normal practice with a visiting Israeli prime ministers, reporters were not allowed in.

Back home in Israel, newspapers seized on the low-profile White House visit as a snub, a sign of strained relations between Obama and Netanyahu, who had rejected his calls for a halt to settlement construction in the occupied West Bank.

But the underlying U.S. message appears to be unchanged: Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas should negotiate with Israel now. Judging by Abbas's rhetoric in a speech on Wednesday, he is making at least a show of not listening. Settlement expansion must come to a complete stop, he said, before talks can resume.

However, echoing Netanyahu remarks in Washington the day before, White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel told U.S. Jewish leaders on Tuesday that Israeli-Palestinian talks, suspended for nearly a year, should get under way "without preconditions."

"No one should allow the issue of settlements to distract from the goal of a lasting peace between Israel, the Palestinians and the Arab world," Emanuel said.

Whether the Palestinians are in a position to revive peace talks now or move toward a deal with Israel is a big question.