April 21, 2009 / 8:03 PM / 10 years ago

Obama nudges Israel on Palestinian statehood

* Obama committed to two-state solution

* Obama invites Middle East leaders for separate talks

* Middle East peace a U.S. priority

* Support for 2002 Arab initiative

By Matt Spetalnick

WASHINGTON, April 21 (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama nudged Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday to accept the goal of a Palestinian state, as he pressed Israel and the Palestinians to "step back from the abyss."

Deepening his direct role in reviving stalled peace efforts, Obama met Jordan’s King Abdullah and invited Netanyahu, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak for separate talks by early June.

He seized the chance to reassure Abdullah of his commitment to a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict despite reluctance by Netanyahu’s new right-leaning government to support eventual Palestinian statehood.

Obama reasserted his pledge to "deeply engage" in Arab-Israeli peace diplomacy — in contrast to a more hands-off approach by his predecessor George W. Bush — and predicted good-faith gestures from both sides in coming months.

"What we have to do is step back from the abyss," Obama told reporters after meeting Abdullah, a key Arab ally, at the White House.

But Obama’s Middle East strategy has been complicated by the emergence of a coalition led by Netanyahu, who since coming to power last month has avoided recognizing the Palestinians’ right to an independent state, as his predecessor Ehud Olmert did.

Obama took care not to confront Netanyahu head-on but made clear his administration hoped to coax him into accepting the principle of a two-state solution, which has been the basis of U.S. policy for years.

"They are going to have to formulate and, I think, solidify their position," Obama said of Israel’s new government.

While offering no new ideas for solving the decades-old conflict, he insisted a "sense of urgency" was needed to resuscitate the peace process.

"I agree that we can’t talk forever, that at some point steps have to be taken so that people can see progress on the ground. And that will be something that we will expect to take place in the coming months," Obama said.

Adding to pressure on Netanyahu, Obama added, "I am a strong supporter of a two-state solution. I have articulated that publicly, and I will articulate that privately. And I think that there are a lot of Israelis who also believe in a two-state solution."


Obama reaffirmed his pledge to make Middle East peace a priority. Bush’s critics had accused him of largely neglecting the conflict, and most Arabs considered him biased in favor of Israel.

Washington’s reengagement in the elusive quest for Israeli-Palestinian peace is seen as a key thrust of Obama’s bid to repair the United States’ image in the world damaged by the Iraq war and other Bush policies.

Obama made clear his support for a 2002 Arab initiative seeking "a comprehensive peace" between Israel and all Arab nations, including a Palestinian state, to be an integral part of renewed peace efforts.

Successive Israeli governments have been wary of the initiative in part because it is vague about how to resolve the status of Palestinian refugees.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said after having lunch with Abdullah that more must be done to revive peace talks. "We have to enlist the neighbors in the region in support of those efforts," she said.

It remained unclear, however, how hard Obama might be willing to push Netanyahu to make compromises.

On the Palestinian side, Abbas’s political weakness — he governs only the West Bank while Islamist Hamas controls the Gaza Strip — raises serious questions about his ability to deliver on any deal.

Visiting Israel and the occupied West Bank last week, Obama’s Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, said he would vigorously pursue the creation of a Palestinian state.

Netanyahu has pledged to hold talks with the Palestinians on economic, security and diplomatic issues but has made no public promise to negotiate statehood.

Palestinian leaders have rejected any notion of an "economic peace" and have said U.S.-backed talks with Israel could not resume until Netanyahu committed to statehood. (Additional reporting by Ross Colvin, Caren Bohan and Sue Pleming, editing by Philip Barbara)

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