- The Washington Times - Friday, May 29, 2009

Building upon his series of meetings aimed at fostering peace in the Middle East, President Obama joined Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Thursday in the Oval Office to push for a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians.

One week after Mr. Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tried to present a united front on the peace process during a White House meeting, the Palestinian leader said Thursday he was encouraged by the talks.

Mr. Abbas told reporters his government is “fully committed” to the so-called “road map” to Middle East peace, saying through a translator he believes in it “from the A to the Z.”

He said he wanted to “capitalize on every minute and every hour in order to move the peace process forward.”

On Thursday, however, the Israeli government rejected a U.S. demand to freeze all settlement construction in the West Bank.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had bluntly demanded Wednesday that all construction cease, specifying that this included “natural growth,” meaning construction at existing settlements to accommodate the growth of families who already live there.

Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev rebuffed that request, telling reporters in Jerusalem that “normal life in those communities must be allowed to continue.”

Mr. Obama said he did not want to wait years to start tackling the Middle East issue, even presuming he would be re-elected in 2012 by saying he did not want to delay the talks until “my second term.”

“We can’t continue with the drift, with the increased fear and resentments on both sides, the sense of hopelessness,” Mr. Obama said. “We need to get this thing back on track.”

Mr. Obama described the private portion of his meeting with Mr. Abbas as a “frank” exchange and repeatedly stressed that a two-state solution would help the U.S. as much as it would benefit Israelis and Palestinians.

The bilateral meetings are a key element in the president’s multi-tiered push for peace in the region, and laid the groundwork for his trip next week to Saudi Arabia and Egypt, where he will deliver a speech aimed at improving U.S. relations with the Muslim world.

Mr. Obama offered a brief preview of the highly anticipated Cairo speech, saying it would offer a “broader message” about how the U.S. can change for the better its relationship with Muslim countries across the globe.

He also said he wanted to emphasize Muslim-Americans in the United States and their achievements, and also will address Middle East peace, saying the latter is “a critical factor in the minds of many Arabs.”

Mr. Obama said he would “assume the best,” about the potential for agreements because it is too early to assume otherwise.

“We don’t have a moment to lose but I also don’t base decisions based on a conversation we only had last week,” he said. “I’m confident that if Israel looks … at its long-term strategic interests that it will recognize a two-state solution is in the interests of the Israeli people.”

The president praised Mr. Abbas for handling “enormous pressure to bring about some sort of unity government and to negotiate with Hamas,” while insisting that such a government must commit to peace.

Mr. Obama also said the Palestinian authority should help reduce anti-Israel sentiments sometimes heard in schools, mosques and public squares, “because all those things are impediments to peace.”

Middle East scholars said Mr. Obama was sending signals that he is serious about his goals by holding these talks so early in his presidency and naming a “heavyweight” - former Sen. George Mitchell - as envoy to the region.

Tamara Cofman Wittes, senior fellow at the liberal Brookings Institution, said Mr. Obama is pivoting from the crisis mode that the Gaza war imposed on him at the start of his presidency. Now he can be pro-active and going after his own diplomatic solution, he said.

“These meetings are not intended to produce big news, they are the beginning of a process,” she said, adding that if Mr. Obama can point to specific significant results from his week of meetings, it will make the Muslim world receptive to his speech.

On Thursday, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee released a letter to Mr. Obama from House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer and Republican Minority Whip Eric Cantor - also signed by 329 representatives - calling for the Israelis and the Palestinians to negotiate their own peace agreement details.

“Everyone in the region has a stake in the success of these negotiations,” they wrote.

Unlike at his meeting with the recently elected Mr. Netanyahu, Mr. Obama did not mention Iran on Thursday.

During that talk last week, which lasted longer than planned, Mr. Netanyahu indicated that the Jewish state’s involvement in the peace process is predicated on a number of actions by the Palestinians, as well as by the United States, as it relates to Iran.

Mr. Netanyahu has yet to embrace the idea of a separate Palestinian state, a pillar of the road map laid out by President George W. Bush in 2002 and also called for by Mr. Obama.

“We’re prepared to move with the president and with others in the Arab world, if they’re prepared to move as well,” Mr. Netanyahu said last week.

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