August 20, 2009 / 8:48 PM / 9 years ago

Obama urges simultanous moves toward Mideast peace

* Obama urges Israel, Palestinians and Arab states to act

* Obama call follows conversation with Jordan’s king

* Israel, Arabs disagree on who should make first move (Adds details and quotes)

By Matt Spetalnick

WASHINGTON, Aug 20 (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama, making a fresh bid to break the deadlock on Middle East peace, called on Israel, the Palestinians and the Arab states on Thursday to act simultaneously to help kick-start negotiations.

Obama’s proposal seeks to overcome deep disagreement between Israelis and Arabs on which side should go first in conciliatory gestures to revive a peace process the president has promised to relaunch since taking office in January.

The White House put forth the idea — but provided no specifics — in announcing that Obama had spoken by phone with Jordan’s King Abdullah and "agreed on the need to launch Israeli-Palestinian negotiations as soon as possible."

"They also agreed that all parties — Israel, the Palestinians and Arab states — should take steps simultaneously to create a context in which these negotiations can succeed," Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters.

The new twist in strategy followed Obama’s statement, after a White House meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on Tuesday, that he had seen progress on the thorny issue of Israeli settlement construction on occupied land.

Obama said there were encouraging signs after the Israeli government said it had not given final approval for any new housing projects in the West Bank since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-leaning coalition took office five months ago.

While Netanyahu appeared to be trying to appease Washington, Israeli anti-settlement group Peace Now said construction was continuing on 1,000 housing units.

Netanyahu has rejected Obama’s push for a complete settlement freeze, and the impasse has created the most serious rift in U.S.-Israeli relations in a decade. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas says he will not resume peace talks with Israel until it stops all settlement expansion.

WHO GOES FIRST?

Arab states have resisted Obama’s appeals to make good-faith gestures toward Israel and have instead put the onus on Israel to act first. Israel has said the Palestinians and Arab states must first do more to advance the process.

Obama has promised a sustained U.S. role in Middle East peacemaking, in contrast to the Bush administration’s on-again-off-again diplomatic efforts. But the emergence of a hardline Israeli government and rifts among the Palestinians have stymied his Obama’s efforts.

Keeping up the pressure, the White House said Obama was sending envoy George Mitchell "to follow up with the parties in the next few weeks to finalize the steps they would take and lay the groundwork for the resumption of negotiations."

Obama stressed to Abdullah what the White House said was his "strong support for Jordan’s efforts to work with other Arab states to reach out to Israel and undertake gestures."

Arab leaders say they remain committed to a 2002 Arab League peace initiative that offers Israel recognition in return for withdrawal from Arab land occupied in 1967, creation of a Palestinian state and a "just" solution for Palestinian refugees. But the leaders say they will not implement it until an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal is reached.

"The optimism continues to rise," Gibbs said after Obama’s call with Abdullah. "We’re hopeful and understand that the road ahead will not be easy." (Editing by Mohammad Zargham)




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