Obama wades into new Mideast talks


WASHINGTON, D.C.: United States (US) President Barack Obama on Tuesday (Wednesday in Manila) lent his weight to a fresh American initiative to hammer out a Middle East peace deal, meeting with Israeli and Palestinian negotiators.

Obama, who travelled to Israel in March for his first visit to the region as president, met with Israeli Justice Minister and chief negotiator Tzipi Livni and her Palestinian counterpart Saeb Erakat.

It was not immediately clear if US Secretary of State John Kerry, who over six months of grueling shuttle diplomacy has cajoled the two sides back to the negotiating table after a three-year hiatus, was also attending.

Earlier, Livni and Erakat met at the State Department for bilateral talks as moves to push the peace negotiations forward gather steam.

Kerry had broken the ice late Monday by hosting an iftar dinner at which Livni and Erakat sat side-by-side to break bread at the end of the Muslim day of fasting for Ramadan.

Livni said the mood at the dinner, held in sumptuous rooms in the State Department, had been “positive.”

“All issues are on the table, but we decided that what was said will stay in the negotiating room and will not go outside,” she told Israeli public radio.

Both she and Erakat left at the end of the 90-minute feast refusing to answer reporters’ questions.

Livni said the talks were resuming “not just in response to US pressure but because it’s in the interest of both parties.”

However, Livni admitted that disagreements within Israel’s right-leaning governing coalition could pose an obstacle to any deal.

A State Department official said the Monday night talks had been “constructive and productive,” adding that the two sides “engaged in good faith and with seriousness of purpose.”

Israel and the Palestinians remain deeply divided over so-called final status issues—including the fate of Jerusalem, claimed by both as a capital, the right of return for Palestinian refugees, and the borders of a future Palestinian state complicated by dozens of Jewish settlements scattered across the occupied West Bank.

Kerry was to host a three-way meeting at the State Department on Tuesday before making a statement to reporters.

Officials have said the opening talks are meant to set out procedures and an agenda for going forward, and will not go into the thorny details of such issues as borders and refugees.

Kerry was flanked at the iftar dinner by seasoned diplomat Martin Indyk, whom he named Monday as the US special envoy to the talks, and who is expected to take over the day-to-day work of keeping them on track.

Obama’s last foray into the intractable Arab-Israeli conflict ended in failure, when talks launched in September 2010 collapsed just weeks later over continued Israeli settlement building.

But he has welcomed the start of new talks as a “promising step” forward, and promised US support as the two sides mull the “hard choices” facing them.



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