NEW YORK, Sept 23 – US President Barack Obama on Tuesday curtly told Israeli and Palestinian leaders to stop stalling and open talks on a comprehensive deal to end an "endless cycle" of conflict and suffering.
"Simply put, it is past time to talk about starting negotiations," Obama said, his frustration evident, as he gathered Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas for a three-way summit.
Obama said final status talks on forming a Palestinian state "must begin, and begin soon," in his most personal intervention yet in Middle East peace making, which he has put at the center of his foreign policy agenda.
The US president officiated as his guests, meeting for the first time since Netanyahu took office in March, performed an awkward handshake for the cameras before the talks at New York’s Waldorf Astoria hotel.
Obama announced that he had asked both sides to send negotiators back to Washington next week for more discussions on relaunching the stalled dialogue to be brokered by US Middle East envoy George Mitchell.
He directed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to report back on how the talks were going by mid-October.
All sides had downplayed prospects of movement in the summit, so it was no surprise that there was little obvious evidence of progress.
"Both parties seek the relaunch of negotiations as soon as possible although there are differences on how to proceed," Mitchell said.
Abbas called on Israelis to impose a freeze on settlement construction, which the Palestinians have made a condition of going back to the table.
"We insisted on the need for Israel to respect its commitments, notably an end to settlement construction in all its forms, including natural growth," Abbas said told Palestinian reporters.
Netanyahu called on the Palestinians to drop their demands, saying it was holding up progress.
"It’s precisely those preconditions on negotiations that have stymied our progress so far," Netanyahu said in an interview later with ABC news.
"Everybody said they’re not placing preconditions. I’m not and I hope the Palestinians don’t. I think we have to move on with the business of peace," he said.
Despite the apparent deadlock, Obama called on both sides to show "urgency."
"My message to these two leaders is clear," he said.
"We have to summon the will to break the deadlock that has trapped generations of Israelis and Palestinians in an endless cycle of conflict and suffering."
Obama said Netanyahu’s hawkish government must show "real action" on halting settlement construction and said Palestinians need to stop anti-Israeli incitement and move forward with negotiations.
He also appealed to Arab states which have so far not acted on his request to make conciliatory gestures to entice Israel to the negotiating table.
Final status issues include the fate of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, the borders of an eventual Palestinian state, the status of Jerusalem and the right of return of Palestinian refugees.
Obama, who vowed, unlike ex-president George W. Bush, to engage in the Middle East early in his presidency, had hoped a deal on opening talks would already be sealed after exhaustive diplomacy by Mitchell.
Facing a flurry of challenging problems at home, and a clutch of brewing foreign crises, the president is taking something of a risk with his fungible political capital by holding the meeting at all.
Some observers, key members of the Bush administration included, argue that the symbolism of the presidency should only be brought to bear when a critical moment is in sight — not merely as a way of kick-starting talks.
But Obama’s aides say that only with consistent, focused US engagement at a high level will Israelis and Palestinians ever move towards a consistent process of dialogue.