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Obama Urges Israel, Palestinians to Seize Opportunity for Peace

President Barack Obama says Israelis and Palestinians must seize the opportunity for achieving a lasting peace presented by the resumption of direct negotiations. Mr. Obama sat down with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and other key Mideast leaders ahead of Thursday's formal opening of direct talks at the State Department.

One by one, Mr. Obama welcomed the leaders of Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Jordan, and Egypt to the Oval Office, in this his first intensive foray at making progress on issues that have been so intractable for previous U.S. presidents.

In one of three appearances before television cameras, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at his side, President Obama described some of what he told Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas.

"As I told each of them today, this moment of opportunity may not soon come again," said President Obama. "They cannot afford to let it slip away. Now is the time for leaders of courage and vision to deliver the peace that their people deserve."

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President Obama said the goal of the talks is resolution of all final status issues, and a negotiated settlement leading to an independent, democratic and viable Palestinian state living in peace and security with a Jewish state of Israel.

If both sides do not commit to the talks in earnest, the president said, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will continue to fester and consume another generation.

Earlier, President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu denounced in strong terms Tuesday's incident in Hebron in which four Israelis were killed by a Palestinian gunman. The Islamist militant group Hamas claimed responsibility. President Obama vowed that such attacks would not be allowed to derail peace efforts.

Among key issues in resumed direct talks is the 10-month partial freeze on new settlement construction in the West Bank. The freeze expires on September 26, and the Palestinian side has insisted that Israel extend its moratorium on construction.

Prime Minister Netanyahu has emphasized the need for Palestinian recognition of Israel and assurances of effective and durable security measures and an end to violence.

Before a working dinner, all five leaders appeared before the media in the White House East Room to address the central goal - achieving a final settlement within the next year of the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

Frequently turning to President Abbas, Prime Minister Netanyahu said he had come to find a historic compromise that will enable Israelis and Palestinians to live in peace, security and dignity.

"Let us not get bogged down by every difference between us," said Mr. Netanyahu. "Let us direct our courage, our thinking and our decisions at those historic decisions that lie ahead."

President Abbas said the time has come to make peace, end Israel's occupation of the West Bank, and for both peoples to live side by side.

"It is time that an independent Palestinian state be established with sovereignty side by side with the state of Israel," said President Abbas. "It is time to put an end to the struggle in the Middle East."

Saying Middle East peace has been an elusive hope for two decades, Mr. Mubarak called on Israel to freeze new settlement activity, while Jordan's King Abdullah spoke about the risk of failure.

MUBARAK: "It is no longer acceptable or conceivable on the verge of the second decade of the third millennium that we fail to achieve just and true peace."

ABDULLAH: "There are those on both sides who want us to fail, who will do everything in their power to disrupt our efforts today. Because when the Palestinians and Israelis find peace, when young men and women can look to a future of promise and opportunity, radicals and extremists lose their most potent appeal."

At the State Department on Thursday, Secretary Clinton will formally open the re-launched direct negotiations, followed by additional public remarks by Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas, before private talks begin. Middle East Envoy George Mitchell plans to brief reporter later in the day.