- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 22, 2009

NEW YORK — Pressing for elusive Mideast peace, President Obama on Tuesday challenged Israeli and Palestinian leaders to do more, saying it was time to “find a way forward.” It was the president’s most direct engagement yet on a problem that has vexed leaders for years.

In a moment deep in symbolism but offering little expectation of any immediate breakthrough, Mr. Obama brought together Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas for their first three-way meeting. Mr. Obama’s words as the meeting got under way showed frustration with the looming gap between the two sides as the United States again tries to foster a deal.

“Simply put, it is past time to talk about starting negotiations,” Mr. Obama said. “It is time to move forward.”

Related TWT article: EXCLUSIVE: Israel makes secret offer on settlements

Mr. Obama, eager to show momentum, got specific with his expectations for both sides and outlined a time line for the coming weeks.

He used the occasion of a U.N. General Assembly session to arrange the get-together, a high-stakes proposition, on the same day that he went before world leaders to proclaim a strong U.S. response to climate change and ask world partners to step up their efforts in that respect. His New York meetings set the stage for Mr. Obama to move to center stage later in this week when he hosts the G-20 summit of leading industrial and developing nations in Pittsburgh.

Neither Mr. Netanyahu nor Mr. Abbas spoke during a brief appearance before reporters as the meeting got under way. But after Mr. Obama’s brief opening remarks, the president strode over to shake each of their hands. Then the two foes reluctantly shook hands as well, with dozens of cameras clicking to record the moment.

The three-way sit-down began about an hour late, after Mr. Obama had met individually with both men.

Mr. Obama said everyone has “worked tirelessly” but still not done enough.

To Palestinians, he said they must build on progress on halting terrorism and “do more to stop incitement.”

As for Israelis, he praised their moves to increase Palestinians’ freedom of movement and their discussions about restraining Jewish settlement-building in Palestinian territories — both top priorities of Palestinians.

But, Mr. Obama said, Israeli officials “need to turn these discussions into real action.”

Despite all the obstacles, Mr. Obama said, “We have to find a way forward.”

Although expectations were low for Tuesday’s three-way meeting, it nonetheless was seen as a crucial step for the president’s Mideast diplomacy efforts.

The Israeli-Palestinian sit-down wasn’t announced until Saturday and comes with the two sides still far apart on what it would take to resume peace talks that broke off in 2008.

U.S. envoy George J. Mitchell failed last week to bridge the gap between the two sides on the issue of Jewish settlements in Palestinian territory, putting the long-hoped-for three-way meeting in doubt. Mr. Obama has asked Israel to freeze all settlement construction, a condition for Mr. Abbas to resume negotiations, but Israel has committed only to a partial halt.

Still, the sides decided to go ahead, even though Mr. Obama is considered unlikely to resolve the settlement showdown and announce a relaunch of peace talks.

“We have no grand expectations out of one meeting,” White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said.

Mr. Obama’s agenda on Tuesday also included meeting Chinese President Hu Jintao at a fraught time in the Washington-Beijing relationship; playing luncheon host, as America’s first black president, to sub-Saharan African leaders for talks on boosting opportunities for young people in their poverty-stricken nations; delivering key speeches to former President Bill Clinton’s Global Initiative and to a U.N. heads-of-state session on the stalled issue of climate change; and ending the day with a U.N.-sponsored leaders dinner.

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