President Obama said Friday he has urged Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to extend his government's moratorium on West Bank settlement building to boost prospects for success in peace talks with the Palestinians. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton flies to the Middle East Monday to attend the next round of direct talks.
Administration officials have been declining comment on substantive issues in the peace talks, which began with a three-way State Department meeting last week.
But at his news conference, President Obama made clear he wants to see the Israeli moratorium on most settlement activity extended beyond its expiration date on September 26 to avoid an early crisis in the negotiations.
Palestinians have threatened a walk-out if the moratorium ends. Mr. Obama said he has urged a continuation of the freeze to spur an agreement that will settle territorial issues once and for all.
"What I've said to Prime Minister Netanyahu is that given, so far, the talks are moving forward in a constructive way, it make sense to extend that moratorium so long as the talks are moving in a constructive way," he said. "Because ultimately, the way to solve these problems, is for the two sides to agree [on] what is going to be Israel, what's going to be the state of Palestine. And if you can get that agreement, you can start constructing anything the people of Israel see fit."
The president acknowledged the difficulty a moratorium extension will pose in Mr. Netanyahu's right-leaning coalition.
He said Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas can make the task easier by building trust and further demonstrating to the Israeli public that Palestinians are serious about peace.
Secretary of State Clinton flies to the Middle East next week to take part in the next two sessions of talks Tuesday and Wednesday in the Egyptian Sinai resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh and Jerusalem.
Mr. Obama said the initial Washington round of talks exceeded the expectations of many.
He acknowledged that "enormous obstacles" remain in the way of an envisaged final accord in a year's time, including rejectionist factions like Hamas and deep-rooted cynicism about peace.
But he said it is a risk worth taking and that the United States will remain engaged, even if the talks break down.
"Ultimately the parties have to make these decisions for themselves," said the president. "And I remain hopeful but this is going to be tough. And I don't want anybody out there thinking that it's going to be easy. The main point I want to make is: it's a risk worth taking because the alternative is a status-quo that is unsustainable. And so if these talks break down, we're going to keep on trying."
'Change the strategic landscape'
Mr. Obama said an end to the chronic Israeli-Palestinian conflict has the potential to "change the strategic landscape" the region in helpful ways, among them prodding Iran to give up nuclear weapons ambitions, and blunting Middle East terrorism.
The president said his administration's unequivocal support for Israel's security helped bring Mr. Netanyahu to the table, as well as a recognition that a two-state solution is needed to preserve Israel as a democratic, Jewish state.
He said Mr. Abbas, in turn, is moved by a recognition that the "window" for creating a Palestinian state is beginning to close.
Secretary Clinton said this week another factor in renewing direct talks, the first in two years, is confidence generated by the U.S.-led effort to create a credible Palestinian security apparatus.