Declaring a need to defeat growing cynicism about the prospects for Mideast peace, President Obama has invited the leaders of Israel, Egypt and the Palestinian territories to the White House for separate talks over the next six weeks.
Obama said he wants to see Israelis, Palestinians and neighboring Arab countries take their first steps toward progress within months.
“My hope would be that over the next several months that you start seeing gestures of good faith on all sides,” Obama told reporters after a White House meeting with King Abdullah II of Jordan.
The overture faces daunting obstacles. The Bush administration’s slow-starting peace efforts sputtered to a halt as the administration’s clock ran out, partially because of paralysis in Israel’s domestic politics. The newly installed Israeli government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has not endorsed the two-state goal supported by the United States.
Meanwhile the government of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has been losing influence to its rival Hamas, the Islamist militant group that controls the Gaza Strip. The United States refuses to deal with Hamas, calling it a terrorist group.
Yet Obama has moved swiftly to engage in the region, where so many previous attempts to find common ground have crashed. In one of his first steps after taking office, Obama appointed George J. Mitchell, a former U.S. senator and the architect of Northern Ireland’s peace agreement, as his special envoy to the Mideast.
“There’s huge potential now . . . because the new administration has taken this on from day one, which is entirely sensible,” said Tony Blair, the former British prime minister who now serves as envoy of the so-called quartet -- a grouping of the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations that has assumed responsibility for trying to steer the Israelis and Palestinians toward a deal.
“What we need in order to make this process work is a simultaneous political negotiation that is credible, and major change on the ground,” said Blair, who was speaking to the editorial board of the Los Angeles Times.
Obama, in his meeting Tuesday with Jordan’s Abdullah, suggested that he shares that approach, saying he was seeking a commitment to “moving that process forward with some urgency.”
He said that though the Israeli government is new and the peace discussions have only recently begun, “we can’t talk forever. At some point steps have to be taken so that people can see progress.”
It remains uncertain whether the Obama team intends to adopt its own positions in negotiations and push for them, as the Clinton administration did, or simply coordinate talks, in the style of President George W. Bush’s team.
Obama appeared to suggest that his administration intended to follow the Bush pattern.
He said, “What we can do is create the conditions and the atmosphere and provide the help and assistance that facilitates an agreement.”
On a separate issue, Obama chastised Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for criticizing Israel this week, and declared that his administration’s diplomacy with Tehran would be “tough.”
At a U.N. conference Monday, Ahmadinejad denounced Israel for establishing a “totally racist government” in the Palestinian territories.
Obama said Ahmadinejad’s language was “harmful, not just with respect to the possibility of U.S.-Iranian relations, but I think it actually undermines Iranians’ position [in] the world as a whole.”
Administration officials have emphasized, as they have sought to reach out to the government in Tehran, that they want to restore trust with Iran after 30 years of friction. But Obama shifted the emphasis.
“We are going to continue to take an approach that tough, direct diplomacy has to be pursued without taking a whole host of other options off the table,” he said.