NEW YORK // The US president Barack Obama yesterday acknowledged the long road to Middle East peace after he directly entered the diplomatic process and brought the current Israeli and Palestinian leaders together for the first time. As expected, there was no breakthrough, but Mr Obama reiterated his commitment to resuming peace talks and announced that Israeli and Palestinian negotiators would meet George Mitchell, US Middle East envoy, next week.
He also said Hillary Clinton, US secretary of state, would give him a progress report in mid-October, revealing a rough timetable for the US administration for the first time, analysts said. Mr Obama had separate talks with Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, and Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, before the three men held a trilateral meeting on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, which is taking place in New York this week.
"Permanent status negotiations must begin and begin soon," Mr Obama said. While there was little substantive progress, it was the first time Mr Netanyahu met Mr Abbas since the Israeli prime minister formed his right-wing coalition government in March. An Israeli offensive in the Gaza Strip at the turn of this year that killed about 1,400 Palestinians also made it difficult for the two sides to meet earlier.
But Mr Obama, whose peace efforts have aroused much scepticism across the Middle East, spoke of a "powerful sense of urgency" even while the protagonists remain far apart, with some Palestinians fearing an eventual new intifada or uprising unless there is palpable progress. "Palestinians have strengthened their efforts on security but they need to do more to stop incitement and to move forward with negotiations," he said.
"Israelis have facilitated greater freedom of movement for the Palestinians and have discussed important steps to restrain settlement activity. "But they need to translate these discussions into real action on this and other issues." He also urged "Arab states to take concrete steps to promote peace". Progress towards a resumption of full-blown negotiations has stalled over Israel's public refusal to freeze settlement construction in the occupied West Bank.
But even partial Israeli moves on settlements, such an end to new building permits, might be enough for the United States to persuade the Palestinians to resume talks under a yet-to-be-decided framework, analysts said. "It serves no purpose to write off this process when there is a lot energy being expended by the US to move things forward," said Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine. "There's a lot of space between a permanent status agreement and no progress at all.
"It might be too optimistic to hope for a comprehensive peace agreement by the end of Obama's first term, as the US president is rumoured to hope for, but it's not an unreasonable goal to create the conditions for permanent status talks. This is possible." Mr Obama's peace push has led to historic lows in approval for a US president in Israeli opinion polls. Mr Abbas, meanwhile, faces growing opposition from within his own Fatah movement the more time elapses without any progress. Hamas, whose Islamic rule is confined to Gaza, quickly dismissed in advance the Palestinian president's participation in yesterday's meeting.
Only Mr Netanyahu can claim some domestic political success, with many Israelis lauding his tough stance on settlements. But Israeli settler leaders already sense betrayal because he has publicly spoken about a "Palestinian state. He also offered a nine-month West Bank settlement freeze, according to Israeli officials, falling short of the 12 months demanded by the United States and the open-ended commitment including east Jerusalem sought by the Palestinians.
It remained to be seen if and how the US might wield any "sticks" to push Israel into meaningful talks. But analysts have noted Mr Obama has not given up, and Congress and the American Jewish community broadly support his peace quest. The future agenda of bilateral peace talks will be subject to further negotiation but Mr Obama made clear he was staying on course. "We cannot continue the same pattern of taking tentative steps forward and then pulling back," he said.