Deepening his involvement in the quest for a difficult peace, President Barack Obama is pushing a reluctant Israel to halt settlement construction in the West Bank while urging the Palestinians to be more accepting of their Israeli neighbors.
"We can't continue with the drift, with the increased fear and resentment on both sides, the sense of hopelessness around the situation that we've seen for many years now," Obama said Thursday, referring to the idea of Palestinians and Israelis living peacefully as neighbors. "We need to get this thing back on track."
Obama challenged Israel to stop settlement construction in the West Bank, yet earlier the same day, Israelis rejected that demand. Obama pushed Palestinians for progress, too, including a direct call for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to reduce anti-Israeli sentiment in schools and mosques.
"I am confident that we can move this process forward," Obama said after meeting with Abbas at the White House. The president said that means both sides must "meet the obligations that they've already committed to" — an element of the peace effort that has proved elusive for years.
Abbas told The Associated Press after the session with Obama that no meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were on the horizon. Abbas said he is meeting his commitments under the road map and that Israel should do the same.
Israel rejected blunt U.S. requests to freeze Jewish settlement construction in the West Bank, a territory that would make up the Palestinian state, along with the Gaza Strip, as part of a broader peace deal.
In strong language, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had said Wednesday that Obama wants a halt to all settlement construction, including "natural growth." Israel uses that term for new housing and other construction that it says will accommodate the growth of families living in existing settlements.
Israeli spokesman Mark Regev responded Thursday by saying some construction would go on.
"Normal life in those communities must be allowed to continue," he said, noting Israel has already agreed not to build new settlements and to remove some tiny, unauthorized settler outposts. Regev said the fate of the settlements would be determined in peace negotiations with the Palestinians.
With that as a backdrop, Obama said part of Israel's obligations include "stopping settlements." But he also struck a hopeful tone.
He said that he had pressed Netanyahu on the settlement matter just last week at the White House and that the Israeli leader needs to work through the issue with his own government.
"I think it's important not to assume the worst, but to assume the best," Obama said.
The president also pushed Palestinians to hold up their end, including increased security in the West Bank to give Israelis confidence in their safety.
Obama said he told Abbas the Palestinians must find a way to halt the incitement of anti-Israeli sentiments that are sometimes expressed in schools, mosques and public arenas. "All those things are impediments to peace," Obama said.
Asked about his impression of the meeting with Obama, Abbas said: "It was a serious and open meeting and President Obama seems determined on what he has said to us and to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu about the necessity of implementing the road map, and we have agreed to continue our communications."
Saeb Erekat, an Abbas aide in the West Bank city of Ramallah, said later that Abbas gave Obama a written proposal.
"It is a combination of the road map, the signed agreements, the Arab peace initiative and the international legitimacy. The proposal includes timetables, and mechanisms for implementation, and follow up," Erekat said.
Obama, like predecessor George W. Bush, embraces a Mideast peace plan that calls for a Palestinian state alongside Israel. The president refused to set a timetable for such a nation but also noted he has not been slow to get involved in meeting with both sides and pushing the international community for help.
Abbas is working to repackage a 2002 Saudi Arabian plan that called for Israel to give up land it has occupied since the 1967 war in exchange for normalized relations with Arab countries.
The U.S. and much of the world consider the settlements an obstacle to peace because they are built on captured land the Palestinians claim for a future state. But successive U.S. administrations have done little to halt settlement activity.
Israelis will be anxiously watching Obama's June 4 speech in Cairo, where he will deliver a message to the Muslim world to try to repair relations that frayed badly under the Bush administration. Obama will also visit Saudi Arabia before he goes to Egypt.
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