Barack Obama

Obama says too optimistic on "intractable" Mideast

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama said in an interview published on Thursday he had underestimated the difficulty of resolving the Middle East conflict and had set his expectations too high in his first year.

“The Middle East peace process has not moved forward. And I think it’s fair to say for all our efforts at early engagement, is not where I want it to be,” Obama told Time Magazine.

“This is just really hard ... This is as intractable a problem as you get,” the president said.

“... if we had anticipated some of these political problems on both sides earlier, we might not have raised expectations as high”, he added.

Obama’s envoy George Mitchell began a new round of shuttle diplomacy with Israel and the Palestinians on Thursday, resuming his mission after a dozen trips last year.

Each side accuses the other of trying to pre-empt peace negotiations, or set conditions in advance that prevent a relaunch of the talks that were suspended over a year ago.

Obama, who committed his administration to brokering an end to the 62-year-old conflict one year ago on taking office, said Mitchell “got blinded” by early progress on limiting Israeli settlement activity in the occupied West Bank.

The former senator “didn’t see that it wasn’t sufficient progress for the Palestinians”.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was mortified when Obama retreated from his original support for the Palestinian demand for a full freeze on settlement building before talks re-started, and instead signaled that “restraint” would do.

He has refused to resume negotiations despite Israel’s November 25 decision to order a partial, 10-month freeze on settlement building on occupied land, and is now under American pressure to drop this condition and sit down at the negotiating table.

“I think the Israelis and Palestinians have found that the political environment, the nature of their coalitions, or the divisions within their societies were such that it was very hard for them to start engaging in a meaningful conversation,” Obama told Time.

“And I think that we overestimated our ability to persuade them to do so when their politics ran contrary to that.”

He noted that Abbas, a secular peacemaker, faced unrelenting challenges from the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas which rejects peace with Israel and pours scorn on Abbas for rejecting armed struggle against the Jewish state.

At the same time, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is constrained by hard-right elements in his own coalition opposed to concessions in the name of peace.

The Israelis “after a lot of time showed a willingness to make some modifications in their policies” but “still found it very hard to move with any bold gestures”, Obama added.

“I think it is absolutely true that what we did this year didn’t produce the kind of breakthrough that we wanted.”

“Moving forward, though, we are going to continue to work with both parties to recognize what I think is ultimately their deep-seated interest,” Obama continued.

The goal is “a two-state solution in which Israel is secure and Palestinians have sovereignty and can start focusing on developing their economy and improving the lives of their children and grandchildren”.

Writing by Douglas Hamilton; editing by Michael Roddy