President Barack Obama faced an immediate challenge to the Middle East talks he opens today as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and the Palestinians insisted that Israel hold to its freeze on West Bank settlement building.
Settlements “will not create rights for Israel nor are they going to achieve peace or security for Israel,” Mubarak said before a working dinner of Middle East leaders late yesterday at the White House. “It is therefore a priority to completely freeze all these activities until the entire negotiating process comes to a successful end.”
Mubarak’s spokesman, Soliman Awaad, told reporters “all bets are off” if Israel follows through with a plan to lift the settlement moratorium after Sept. 26. “If Abu Mazen leaves negotiations in case a moratorium is not extended, his position will be very well understood by Egypt,” Awaad said, using another name for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Obama brought Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Washington to begin the first direct talks in almost two years and said yesterday he is “cautiously hopeful” the sides can reach an agreement. Obama has asked the Israelis and Palestinians to pursue a deal within a year on all security and territorial issues at stake, a resolution that has evaded leaders for decades.
The issue of Israeli building in areas the Palestinians claim as their own has shadowed preparations for the talks. Netanyahu said he wants the issue to be discussed only when negotiators begin work on core issues, such as the borders of a future Palestinian state.
Obama held bilateral meetings yesterday with four Middle Eastern leaders: Netanyahu, Abbas, Mubarak and Jordan’s King Abdullah. The leaders then came together at a pre-dinner appearance at which they took turns speaking about their expectations for the talks.
“Peace must be anchored in security,” Netanyahu told the gathering, after Mubarak spoke. “I’m prepared to walk down the path of peace. But peace must also be defended against its enemies. We want the skyline of the West Bank to be dominated by apartment towers, not missiles.”
Netanyahu referred to Iran’s push for influence in the region, which he described as a threat to all the countries represented. The Israeli leader said he wants to ensure that any territory he concedes isn’t turned into an Iranian-backed enclave that threatens Israel. The Israeli military has carried out operations in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip in an effort to stop the firing of rockets and missiles into Israel.
West Bank Attacks
Two Israelis were injured by Palestinian militants yesterday near the West Bank city of Ramallah, the second attack in as many days claimed by Hamas. On Tuesday, the military wing of Hamas said it shot to death four Israelis, including a pregnant woman, near a West Bank settlement.
Abbas denounced the attacks and said yesterday that Palestinians “don’t want one drop of blood shed.”
Hamas, an Islamic movement, and Abbas’s Fatah party, which controls the West Bank, are rivals. Hamas is considered a terrorist group by the U.S. and the EU for its rejection of Israel.
Amid the tensions in the region, Abdullah called on negotiators from both sides to “spare no effort” for a peace deal. The Jordanian ruler said “time is not on our side.”
Obama and the leaders were joined at the working dinner by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, now a representative of the Middle East Quartet of the U.S., the European Union, United Nations and Russia.
Israel and the Palestinians have an opportunity for peace “that must be seized,” Obama said.
Core areas of dispute include deciding the borders of a future Palestinian state, settling the rights of Palestinians refugees who want to return to their former homes, the status of Jerusalem, which both sides claim as a capital, and security arrangements for Israel.
“Our goal is a two-state solution that ends the conflict and ensures the rights and security of both of Israelis and Palestinians,” Obama said yesterday in the White House Rose Garden, flanked by Clinton and her Middle East envoy, former Senator George Mitchell.
Obama condemned “senseless slaughter” from the West Bank attack and warned that “enemies will do everything they can to derail” the peace effort.
Jewish settler leaders responded to the violence by digging foundations and pouring cement at several sites, according to Naftali Bennett, director-general of the Yesha Council. The group represents more than 300,000 Israelis who live in West Bank settlements.
The settlers’ actions were intended to publicly violate the moratorium on building in the territory, Bennett said.