WASHINGTON (AFP) – US President Barack Obama will seek to restart stalled Mideast peace talks Tuesday when he hosts a trilateral meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas.
The White House’s surprise Saturday afternoon announcement came amid few indications of movement on the main issues holding up the talks, and after US envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell returned empty-handed from a mission to the region.
The three-way meeting in New York will be “immediately preceded” by bilateral talks between Obama and the two leaders, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said in a statement.
It will seek “to lay the groundwork for the relaunch of negotiations, and to create a positive context for those negotiations so that they can succeed,” Gibbs said.
Shortly after the announcement, Netanyahu’s office said the prime minister “responded positively” to the invitation.
A US administration official cautioned against any expectations of a breakthrough or agreement coming out of the meeting, which will be held ahead of the United Nations general assembly.
Obama thought it was important to get all three leaders together in a room to “continue to try to bridge gaps and bridge divides,” the official said, in line with the president’s vow to engage in the Middle East peace process at the beginning and not the end of his presidency.
The official, who requested anonymity, also argued that a trilateral meeting being held so soon after Israel’s devastating offensive against the Gaza Strip in December and the formation of a new Israeli government was significant in and of itself.
As recently as Friday, the US ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, said that Washington could not set a date for a three-way meeting.
Mitchell wrapped up a mission to the Middle East on Friday after failing to secure an Israeli freeze on settlement expansion that would pave the way for the resumption of Palestinian-Israeli peace talks.
The former senator, who helped broker peace in war-torn Northern Ireland in the 1990s, said that the upcoming talks were a sign of Obama’s “deep commitment to comprehensive peace.”
The US president’s personal engagement, Mitchell added in the White House statement, comes as “we continue our efforts to encourage all sides to take responsibility for peace and to create a positive context for the resumption of negotiations.”
The Middle East peace Quartet — the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations — also plans to hold talks on the sidelines of the UN general assembly next week.
Israelis and Palestinians blamed each other for the lack of progress made during Mitchell’s visit.
In Israel, foreign ministry spokesman Yossi Levi insisted that “the Palestinian Authority is the one that is preventing the resumption of the peace process by making conditions that it has not made in the past.”
Palestinians have been demanding a halt to Israeli settlement construction in the occupied West Bank, including annexed Arab east Jerusalem, as a condition for resuming talks with Israel.
But Netanyahu has repeatedly rebuffed US calls to freeze settlement construction, leading to a rare diplomatic spat between the Jewish state and its closest ally.
Abbas in turn blamed Israel for Mitchell’s failure to secure a breakthrough.
“The road is now blocked,” Abbas told reporters in Cairo Saturday after talks with Middle East powerbroker Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
“There is no more work (for Mitchell) with the Western or Palestinian sides because we are complying with all our duties. The focus has to be on the Israeli side.”
Abbas and Jordan’s King Abdullah II urged the international community to intervene and put pressure on Israel, saying in a joint statement that settlements are “the key obstacle to achieving progress.”
Obama met separately in May with Abbas and Netanyahu in Washington. Tuesday’s event is the first time the three leaders will hold a joint meeting.
The mini-summit ahead of the United Nations gathering comes days after top Israeli officials slammed a UN report that found the Jewish state committed war crimes and possible crimes against humanity during the 22-day war on Gaza in December-January.
Although it leveled some of the blame also at Palestinian groups, the report reserved some of its harshest language for the actions taken by Israel against the civilian population in the densely-populated Gaza Strip.