Saturday, September 11, 2010

Obama urges Netanyahu to extend freeze as negotiations progress

President Barack Obama said on Friday he told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that it makes sense to extend a moratorium on settlement construction for as long as Middle East talks are constructive.

Speaking at a White House news conference, the US president said, "And it turns out, to Netanyahu's credit and to the Israeli government's credit, the settlement moratorium has actually been significant. It has significantly reduced settlement construction in the region. And that's why now the Palestinians say: You know what; even though we weren't that keen on it at first or we thought it was just window dressing, it turns out that this is important to us.

"What I've said to Prime Minister Netanyahu is that, given so far the talks are moving forward in a constructive way, it makes sense to extend that moratorium so long as the talks are moving in a constructive way, because ultimately the way to solve these problems is for the two sides to agree what's going to be Israel, what's going to be the state of Palestine; and if you can get that agreement, then you can start constructing anything that the people of Israel see fit, in undisputed areas," Obama stated.

"Now, I think the politics for Prime Minister Netanyahu are very difficult. His coalition - I think there are a number of members of his coalition who've said, we don't want to continue this. And so I've -- you know, one of the things that I've said to President Abbas is you've got to show the Israeli public that you are serious and constructive in these talks so that the politics for Prime Minister Netanyahu, if he were to extend the settlement moratorium, would be a little bit easier."

Obama said he saw "enormous hurdles" ahead in Middle East peace negotiations, but said it was a risk worth taking and the United States would remain engaged even if talks break down.

"There are enormous hurdles between now and our endpoint," he said.

"And there are going to be a whole bunch of folks in the region who want to undermine these negotiations. We saw it when Hamas carried out these horrific attacks against civilians and explicitly said, 'We're going to try to do this to undermine peace talks.' There are going to be rejectionists who suggest that it can't happen, and there are also going to be cynics who just believe that the mistrust between the sides is too deep."

According to the American leader, the talks between Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who are due to meet again in Egypt on Sept. 14-15, represented a chance to realize the goal of an independent Palestinian state living side by side in peace with a secure Israel.

"The two parties need each other. That doesn't mean it's going to work. Ultimately it's going to be up to them," Obama said.

"I remain hopeful but this is going to be tough," Obama said. "It's a risk worth taking because the alternative is a status quo that is unsustainable. And so if these talks break down, we're going to keep on trying."

The US president said a successful peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians could "change the strategic landscape in the Middle East" and help US efforts to pressure Iran over its nuclear program.

"This is something in our interests. We're not just doing this to feel good. We're doing it because it will help secure America as well."

Israeli officials declined to respond to Obama’s comments.