NEW YORK — President Barack Obama, expressing impatience with stalled Middle East peace talks, told Israeli and Palestinian leaders Tuesday that "it is past time to talk about starting negotiations — it is time to move forward."
His meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was the highest-level Middle East diplomacy of his presidency, but it fell short of expectations. As recently as a week, ago U.S. officials had hoped it would yield an announcement of renewed formal negotiations on an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord.
However, Obama special envoy George Mitchell was unable to secure a deal in which Israel would freeze construction of West Bank settlements in return for Arab states taking small steps toward recognition.
Obama and his aides seemed to be switching gears after seven months of frustration, as they played down the settlements issue and emphasized the need to begin talks right away.
"Permanent status negotiations must begin, and begin soon," Obama said, referring to talks on the fundamental issues that divide the parties, such as borders, the status of Jerusalem and the settlements.
The meetings at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel — Obama met Netanyahu and Abbas separately, and then brought them together — produced no breakthroughs. The only apparent progress was a commitment by both sides to send negotiating teams to Washington next week, and a general agreement that peace talks should restart quickly.
Mitchell, who's repeatedly shuttled across the Middle East, said the Obama administration has made significant progress in narrowing the differences between the two sides. But he added: "We knew this wasn't going to be easy."
Tuesday's talks were "blunt" at times, Mitchell said, with the Israelis and Palestinians reiterating their positions and Obama beseeching them to "get things done."
Netanyahu, at the helm of a right-center coalition, has steadfastly refused U.S. calls for a full freeze in construction of Jewish settlements in the contested West Bank. He's offered a temporary nine-month pause, which would not include construction in Jerusalem.
Obama appeared to acknowledge that his early calls for a settlement freeze have fallen on deaf ears. Israel, he said, has only offered to "restrain" settlement activity.
The Israeli offer "is not everything we might have wanted. But it's certainly a significant step," said a senior U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity under White House ground rules.
While U.S. officials worked to dispel the impression that Obama is de-emphasizing the settlements issue, senior Israeli officials came away with a different message.
"That's not just the impression, that's the reality," said Michael Oren, Israel's ambassador to the United States.
Another senior U.S. official said Obama wouldn't stop pressing on the settlements issue, and argued that the steps Israel has tentatively agreed to go "far, far beyond what any previous government has ever done to control settlement activity."
Aaron David Miller, a Middle East negotiator for six secretaries of state, said Netanyahu was the clear winner after Tuesday's summit.
"Netanyahu 1, and Abbas, Obama and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, zero," said Miller, now a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington.
The meeting "represents an impasse, after seven months of working the issue in a particular way," Miller said, referring to the settlements-for-confidence building measures trade that Mitchell has been working on.
Critics of Obama's approach say the demands on settlements and other issues have created new barriers to peace talks and caused the Palestinians to harden their bargaining stance. They point out that Abbas and Netanyahu's predecessor, Ehud Olmert, held detailed talks without preconditions, during President George W. Bush's last year in office.
U.S. officials say that, with so many peace negotiations having failed over the years, they are trying to establish solid ground rules before the talks that would drive them to a successful conclusion.
"We have never identified the steps requested (of Israelis and Palestinians) as ends in themselves," Mitchell said. "We have always made clear that they are means to an end, the end being the re-launching of negotiations."
"There is absolutely no change in our focus," he said. "We want to get negotiations re-launched, and everything we have said and done in this period has been in an effort to achieve that objective."
Obama promised during the presidential campaign that he would make Middle East peace a priority, criticizing what he said was Bush's insufficient attention to a problem with worldwide ramifications. He appointed Mitchell, a former Senate majority leader, as Mideast envoy on his second full day in office.
Miller said, however, that Obama will soon have to calculate how much time and capital he wants to devote to the conflict. "The decision point is rapidly approaching for this administration. How important is Israeli-Palestinian peace for this president?"
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