WASHINGTON // The emergence of an Israeli government led by a strong sceptic of peace negotiations with the Palestinians makes it no less necessary for the US to push for a resolution of the generations-old conflict, President Barack Obama said yesterday. In his most direct public comments on the evolving make-up of the Israeli government, following inconclusive national elections in February, Mr Obama told a White House news conference that he remains committed to pushing for a two-state solution: separate Israeli and Palestinian states existing side-by-side in peace.
When a reporter asked how realistic it is to hope that such a solution can be achieved, given the political shifts in Israel, the president replied, "It's not easier than it was, but I think it's just as necessary." It was the only foreign policy issue raised in the nearly hour-long news conference. Remarkably, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were never raised and no one mentioned Pakistan, which is at the centre of US efforts against al-Qaida terrorism.
On Friday Mr Obama is expected to unveil a new strategy for stabilising Afghanistan, in a campaign linked to combating Islamic extremism in neighbouring Pakistan. In response to the question about Israel, Mr Obama noted that there is uncertainty; not only about the make-up of a new Israeli government but of Israel's negotiating partner, the Palestinian Authority, which remains divided. On March 7, the Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad submitted his resignation in a move to enable the early formation of a new caretaker government to oversee new elections. The designated Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has been given until April 3 to form a governing coalition.
"We don't yet know what the Israeli government is going to look like," Mr Obama said. "And we don't yet know what the future shape of Palestinian leadership is going to be comprised of. "What we do know is this: that the status quo is unsustainable, that it is critical for us to advance a two-state solution where Israelis and Palestinians can live side-by-side in their own states with peace and security."
On Tuesday, Israel's Labour Party voted to join the incoming Netanyahu government, lending a moderate voice to a coalition dominated by hardliners and easing concerns of a head-on confrontation with Washington over Middle East peacemaking. Mr Obama mentioned that he had appointed the former Sen George Mitchell as his special envoy for Middle East peace talks and that this demonstrated the administration's determination to press ahead regardless of the obstacles. Mr Mitchell is expected to return to the region in a further effort to get peace talks under way shortly after the Israeli government is fully in place in April.
"How effective these negotiations may be, I think we're going to have to wait and see," Mr Obama added. The past year of US-backed talks, prior to Mr Obama taking office in January, produced no discernible results, because the leadership of both sides appeared too weak to make the necessary concessions on vital issues like borders, refugees and settlements. Mr Mitchell, the former Senate Democratic leader, negotiated the Northern Ireland peace accord in the 1990s. Mr Obama referred to the St Patrick's Day White House gathering earlier this week of former warring parties in Northern Ireland as proof that even when peace seems impossible, differences can eventually be overcome through persistence.