Sitting in the Oval Office with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas Thursday afternoon, President Obama reaffirmed his commitment to a “two-state solution” and seemed to indicate his administration is more frustrated with Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu than with his Palestinian counterpart.
Saying two states “would provide the Israelis and Palestinians the peace and security that they need,” President Obama said he was “very appreciative that President Abbas shares that view” and suggested that Netanyahu – who does not publicly support such a move – needs to come on board.
“When Prime Minister Netanyahu was here last week, I reiterated to him that the framework that's been provided by the ‘road map’ is one that they can advance the interests of Israel, can advance the interests of the Palestinian people and can also advance the interests of the United States,” Mr. Obama said.
The road map ultimately would lead to a Palestinian state, though it remains unlikely that Netanyahu and his right-leaning government would ever approve such a state, especially if given its own military and ability to negotiate with governments such as Iran and Syria.
“We talked about the necessity to have two states,” Mr. Abbas told reporters of his conversation with President Obama, speaking in Arabic. “We talked about the importance of stopping settlement activities. And we also talked about the importance of achieving peace through negotiating all permanent status issues.”
In recent days, the Obama White House has been publicly emphasizing its view that Israel needs to halt any settlement activity far more so than it is pressing the need for Abbas and the Palestinian government to take actions the road map requires of them.
Using unusually strong language, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Wednesday called upon Netanyahu’s government to stop all settlement activity.
"The president was very clear when Prime Minister Netanyahu was here,” Clinton said. “He wants to see a stop to settlements, not some settlements, not outposts, not natural growth exceptions.”
President Obama today -- asked about pushback from Netanyahu’s government, which supports what it calls “natural growth” of existing settlements – said “I think it's important not to assume the worst but to assume the best.”
Mr. Obama said that his conversation with Netanyahu “only took place last week. I think that we don't have a moment to lose, but I also don't make decisions based on just a conversation that we had last week, because obviously Prime Minister Netanyahu has to work through these issues in his own government, in his own coalition, just as President Abbas has a whole host of issues that he has to deal with.”
As for work the Palestinians need to do, President Obama said “it's going to be important and necessary to continue to take the security steps on the West Bank that President Abbas has already begun to take, working with General (Keith) Dayton,” who supervises U.S. efforts to trail Palestinian security forces.
“We’ve seen great progress in terms of security on the West Bank,” President Obama said. “Those security steps need to continue because Israel has to have some confidence that security on the West Bank is in place in order for us to advance this process.”
President Abbas said “we are fully committed to all of our obligations under the road map, from the A to the Z. “ He said members of his government are “carrying our security responsibility in the West Bank, and have law and order in that areas under our control.”
Saying he had a “frank exchange” with President Abbas on the issue, President Obama said “that it was very important to continue to make progress in reducing the incitement and anti-Israel sentiments that are sometimes expressed in schools and mosques and in the public square, because all those things are impediments to peace.”
Mr. Obama said he had no timetable for the peace process, but – in what seemed a slap at his predecessor – noted that “when I was campaigning for this office, I said that one of the mistakes I would not make is to wait until the end of my first term or the end of my second terms before we moved on this issue aggressively.”
Well aware of how weak Abbas is domestically – he is not able to travel to Gaza and it’s said he doesn’t even enjoy total control of the city in which he lives, Ramallah – President Obama also called upon “Arab states to be supportive of a two-state solution.”
Abbas suggested that if “the Israelis will withdraw from all occupied Palestinian, Syrian and Lebanese land, the Arab world will be really have normal relationships with the state of Israel.”
But the notion that Netanyahu would ever withdraw from all the land Mr. Abbas considers Palestinian, Syrian, and Lebanese – some of which is considers vital for Israeli national security -- is unlikely indeed.