By Anne Gearan, The Associated Press
WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama gave a surprisingly downbeat assessment Tuesday of the chances for a U.S.-brokered peace settlement in the Middle East, saying that the United States cannot help if Israel and the Palestinians decide they cannot negotiate.
The two sides “may say to themselves, ‘We are not prepared to resolve these issues no matter how much pressure the United States brings to bear,”‘ Obama said.
Obama reiterated that peace is a vital goal, but one that may be beyond reach “even if we are applying all of our political capital.”
Obama was responding to a question about whether the successful negotiation of a new arms control treaty with Russia and the agreements he won at this week’s nuclear summit could help him make gains elsewhere. His words are a recognition that although he pledged to work hard for a deal from his first day in office, Obama has gotten little traction in the decades-old conflict.
The United States is pushing for new Israeli-Palestinian talks in which the the Obama administration would be a go-between. Previous talks broke off more than a year ago, and despite shuttle diplomacy and unusual pressure on ally Israel, the Obama administration has been unable to reach even the modest goal of new talks.
Obama spoke at the close of a conference on securing nuclear materials. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu skipped the meeting because, a spokesman said, Israel thought it would devolve into “Israel-bashing.”
Israel sent a lower-level delegation instead. Israel is presumed to have nuclear weapons, although it does not say one way or the other.
Netanyahu acknowledged last week that his government has yet to resolve its differences with the United States over Israeli construction in East Jerusalem, a dispute that has stymied American efforts to restart peace talks.
Netanyahu said both countries still are working to find a solution but staunchly defended his government’s contentious settlement plans in the disputed holy city, calling them a long-standing Israeli policy.
“There are things we agree on, things we don’t agree on, things we are closing the gap on,” Netanyahu said of his talks with Washington. “We are making an effort.”
The worst crisis in U.S.-Israeli ties in years erupted last month when Israel announced plans to build 1,600 new homes for Jews in East Jerusalem during a visit by Vice-President Joe Biden, drawing sharp condemnation from Washington and calls to cancel the construction. The Palestinians want East Jerusalem as capital of Palestine in any two-state solution.
The announcement derailed a plan for third-party talks, in which each side would talk to a U.S. mediator, who would relay messages to the other. Obama had wanted a resumption of full, direct talks between the Israeli leader and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. U.S. officials settled for a pledge from both sides to engage in the awkward indirect talks, saying it was a step toward something better. That lesser goal is now in doubt, with each side blaming the other for delaying the start of talks.
Meanwhile, the top U.S. commander for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan said he never claimed that inaction toward a peace deal puts American soldiers at risk, and that he does not blame Israel for the lack of a deal so far.
Gen. David Petraeus told a Washington audience that a policy statement he submitted to Congress last month was misconstrued and misquoted by media and online commentators. The statement lists the unresolved status of Palestinians as a complicating factor in the region, and says there is a sense among many who live there that the United States is biased toward Israel.
Petraeus did not back off those assertions, but he said that in hindsight he wishes his statement had made clear that Israel is a valued strategic ally and will remain one.
“That’s something we should and could have included,” Petraeus said during an address to the Woodrow Wilson Center, “just to make sure there was no misperception about what we were implying by this.”