Presidential charm offensive fails to kickstart peace talks

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Indy Politics

Seeking to kick-start stalled Middle East peace talks, President Barack Obama invoked what he called "a powerful sense of urgency" at a summit between himself and the leaders of Israel and the Palestinian Authority in New York yesterday but there was scant sign that his two guests shared his view.

"It is past time to talk about starting negotiations. It is time to move forward," Mr Obama said just before the start of the three-way meeting at the Waldorf Hotel in Manhattan on the eve of the UN General Assembly. "Permanent status negotiations must begin and begin soon."

It was the first face-to-face encounter between Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority President, and Benjamin Netanyahu since the Israeli Prime Minister returned to power in March. The men, clearly cajoled by their host, stood up and abruptly shook hands without, seemingly, looking each in the eye.

While Mr Obama also held meetings with each man separately, there were no breakthroughs. American hopes that New York would be the venue for a formal re-launching of the peace talks were dashed when the US special envoy George Mitchell returned from the Middle East last week empty-handed.

He is set to return to the region next week to mediate between the parties. Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary State, will make a progress report to the White House next month, officials said. Israeli and Palestinian representatives will also be asked to come to Washington.

Yesterday's theatrics were less about negotiating sticking points and more about demonstrating Mr Obama's willingness to push hard for a long-term settlement of the Middle East conflict. He believes that brokering a deal will provide a key to easing tensions between the US and all of the Arab world.

However, it is an uphill task. Tensions between long-time allies Israel and the US are higher than they have been for a long time. The Palestinians have asked, meanwhile, for an open-ended suspension of Israeli settlement construction. Reportedly, the Israelis last week offered to freeze construction for nine months but the Palestinians considered it insufficient.

Meanwhile, US officials are bracing for a speech Mr Netanyahu will give to the General Assembly today when he is expected to focus hard on the nuclear stand-off with Iran. Israeli defence officials have made no secret of their willingness to contemplate a military strike against Iran if the West's efforts to persuade it to relinquish nuclear ambitions continue to go nowhere.

Israeli officials were at pains to insist that in yesterday's meeting Mr Netanyahu declared himself ready to work with the US president to find a way to get peace talks going again. It is plain to most diplomats, however, that the Palestinian side was much comfortable with his predecessor, Ehud Olmert.

For his part, Mr Abbas faced criticism at home for agreeing even to shake hands with his Israeli counterpart, particularly from his Hamas rivals. His aides stressed in New York that nothing about yesterday's meetings would affect his negotiating stance.