WASHINGTON — Gingerly trying to advance Mideast peace, President Barack Obama on Thursday challenged Israel to stop settlement construction in the West Bank on the same day the Israelis rejected that demand. Obama pushed Palestinians for progress, too, deepening his personal involvement.
"I am confident that we can move this process forward," Obama said after meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud 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.
Earlier in the day, 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.
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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 he had pressed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin 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.
The Palestinian leader said "we are fully committed to all of our obligations" under the peace framework known as the road map. Doing so, Abbas said, is "the only way to achieve the durable, comprehensive and just peace that we need and desire in the Middle East."
Obama, like predecessor George W. Bush, embraces a multifaceted 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.
"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. "We need to get this thing back on track."
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. Abbas gave Obama a document that would keep intact that requirement and also offer a way to monitor a required Israeli freeze on all settlement activity, a timetable for Israeli withdrawal and a realization of a two-state solution.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Obama affirmed to Abbas that Israel has an obligation to freeze settlement expansions, including natural growth.
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.
Now more than 120 settlements dot the West Bank, and Palestinian officials say their growth makes it increasingly impossible to realize their dream of independence. More than 280,000 Israelis live in the settlements, in addition to more than 2 million Palestinians in the West Bank. An additional 180,000 Israelis live in east Jerusalem, where the Palestinians hope to establish their capital.
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.
"I want to use the occasion to deliver a broader message about how the United States can change for the better its relationship with the Muslim world," Obama said of his Egypt speech. "That will require, I think, a recognition on both the part of the United States as well as many majority Muslim countries about each other, a better sense of understanding, and I think possibilities to achieve common ground."