NEW YORK // Barack Obama is expected to achieve little more than provide further proof that his US presidential leadership remained committed to seeking Middle East peace when he meets Israeli and Palestinian leaders today. All three sides downplayed expectations ahead of the meeting to be hosted by Mr Obama with Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, and Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, which is taking place in New York this week. George Mitchell, the US envoy for the Middle East, who has led efforts to resume negotiations, said in a White House statement the meeting was "another sign of the president's deep commitment to comprehensive peace that he wants to personally engage at this juncture".
Mr Mitchell left the Middle East last Friday having failed to secure a commitment from Israel to freeze settlement construction in the occupied West Bank, a key US and Palestinian demand. Nonetheless, the White House announced on Saturday that Mr Obama would talk with Israeli and Palestinian leaders separately before all three met together today. Neither Mr Abbas nor Mr Netanyahu was in a position to refuse such a meeting with the US president, who has not given up on an eventual relaunch of negotiations after having frayed ties with Israel over US demands to freeze settlements. Mr Obama wanted to encourage all sides "to take responsibility for peace and to create a positive context for the resumption of negotiations", said Robert Gibbs, the White House spokesman.
Edward Walker, who served as the US ambassador to Israel during Mr Netanyahu's first term as prime minister in the 1990s, said he believed Mr Obama decided to press ahead with the meeting to "obtain some semblance of momentum". "I am sure Obama doesn't want to go to a meeting where nothing happens," he said. "On the other hand, to walk away from it at this point is tantamount to just putting everything on ice, and that's going to lead to violence and he doesn't want that either." Few Palestinians disagreed with the assessment of senior Israeli officials quoted in the Israeli media yesterday as saying the tripartite meeting was more of a "photo opportunity" than a summit to renew stalled negotiations because there were still wide gaps on the settlements issue. Mr Netanyahu, who has not met Mr Abbas since forming his right-wing coalition in March, has only offered a nine-month West Bank settlement freeze, according to Israeli officials, falling short of the 12 months demanded by the US and the open-ended commitment including east Jerusalem sought by the Palestinians.
Publicly, Mr Netanyahu's aides held firm against a settlement freeze ahead of the prime minister's departure for New York, while settler leaders expressed a sense of betrayal. "Netanyahu has turned Israel into the sucker of the region in the past few months. He has recognised a Palestinian state, accepted the principle of freezing construction and in return he is only getting slaps on the face and a toughening of stances from the Palestinians," said Danny Dayan, the head of the Yesha settler umbrella organisation. Several settler leaders and their supporters pitched a tent in front of the premier's office in Jerusalem to protest against a settlement suspension. Benny Begin, a cabinet minister and son of Menachem Begin, the late Israeli leader, said during a visit to the tent that he did not have "great expectations" for the New York meeting and told the settlers: "The stances that you present are important. One cannot come and brutally trample the right of the Jews to settle the land of Israel." The Palestinians criticised Mr Netanyahu's intransigence but could not boycott today's meeting given Mr Obama's personal intervention. "For the last eight months, the clear message from the international community has been that both sides need to meet their obligations" to allow talks to resume, said Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator. "Palestinians strongly support this position." Philip Wilcox, the US consul-general in Jerusalem in the 1990s and president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, said Mr Obama's decision to call the summit may signal a shift away from insisting on a settlement freeze as the catalyst for broader negotiations. "I think Obama decided to shift from the exclusive focus on a settlement freeze given the fact that that effort was not prospering, to move toward what he hopes will be negotiations on the real issues, which are borders - of course settlements are an aspect of borders - Jerusalem, security, refugees, and the essential ingredients of a two-state agreement," he said. "You don't get to these ingredients by negotiating interminably over a settlement freeze ? And so I think Obama has decided to move toward negotiations." firstname.lastname@example.org email@example.com firstname.lastname@example.org * Sharmila Devi reported from New York, Steven Stanek from Washington, Vita Bekker from Tel Aviv