NEW YORK — Pressing for elusive Mideast peace, President Barack Obama on Tuesday challenged Israeli and Palestinians leaders to do more, saying it was time to "find a way forward." It was the president's most direct engagement yet on a problem that has vexed leaders for years.
In a moment deep in symbolism but offering little expectation of any immediate breakthrough, Obama brought together Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas for their first three-way meeting. Obama's words as the meeting got under way showed frustration with the looming gap between the two sides as the U.S. again tries to foster a deal.
"Simply put, it is past time to talk about starting negotiations. It is time to move forward," Obama said.
Obama got specific with his expectations for both sides and outlined a timeline of steps for the coming weeks, eager to show momentum.
He used the occasion of a U.N. General Assembly session to arrange the get-together, a high-stakes proposition, on the same day that he went before world leaders to proclaim a strong U.S. response to climate change and ask world partners to step up their efforts in that respect. His New York meetings set the stage for Obama to move to center stage later in this week when he hosts the G-20 summit of leading industrial and developing nations, in Pittsburgh.
Neither Netanyahu nor Abbas spoke during a brief appearance before reporters as the meeting got under way. But after Obama's brief opening remarks, the president strode over to shake each of their hands. Then the two foes reluctantly shook hands as well, with dozens of cameras clicking to record the moment.
The three-way sit-down began about an hour late, after Obama had met individually with both men.
Obama said everyone has "worked tirelessly" but still not done enough.
To Palestinians, he said they must build on progress on halting terrorism and "do more to stop incitement."
As for Israelis, he praised their moves to increase Palestinians' freedom of movement and their discussions about restraining Jewish settlement-building in Palestinian territories — both top priorities of Palestinians.
But, said Obama, Israeli officials "need to turn these discussions into real action."
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Despite all the obstacles, Obama said, "We have to find a way forward."
"We have to summon the will to break the deadlock that has trapped generations of Israelis and Palestinians in an endless cycle of conflict and suffering. We cannot continue the same pattern of taking tentative steps forward and then stepping back."
Diplomacy, climate change
The meeting unfolded on the sidelines of U.N. General Assembly meetings in New York, where Obama engaged in personal diplomacy and addressed a high-level climate summit convened by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
Obama held out the United States as a serious partner in combating global warming, telling world peers "we are determined to act."
"The journey is hard. And we don't have much time left to make it," Obama said in brief remarks at the climate summit after Ban admonished leaders to put aside differences and move more quickly on global warming.
The president sought to show U.S. resolve ahead of crucial talks in Copenhagen in December, when nations will try to reach a new global treaty to address climate change.
Obama is under pressure to put political capital behind getting a serious clean-energy law at home and show that the U.S., an economic giant, will do its part to cut heat-trapping emissions. The U.S. House passed a bill this summer that would set the first mandatory limits on greenhouse gases, but a Senate version appears increasingly unlikely this year.
In his first presidential visit to the United Nations, Obama also sought to show a clear break from former President George W. Bush without referring to his predecessor by name. Bush's critics said he didn't take climate change seriously enough.
"It is true that for too many years, mankind has been slow to respond to or even recognize the magnitude of the climate threat. It is true of my own country as well," Obama said. "We recognize that."
'No grand expectations'
Tuesday's U.N. summit and the G-20 summit in Pittsburgh later this week seek to put added pressure on rich nations to commit to greenhouse gas cuts and to pay for poorer nations to burn less coal and preserve their forests.
Obama sought repeatedly to hold everyone accountable. He said developed nations such as the United States have a "responsibility to lead" but rapidly-growing nations must do their part.
Obama's Mideast diplomacy efforts, although expectations were low for Tuesday's three-way meeting, it was seen as a crucial step for the president nonetheless.
The Israeli-Palestinian sit-down wasn't announced until Saturday and comes with the two sides still far apart on what it would take to resume peace talks that broke off in 2008.
U.S. envoy George Mitchell failed last week to bridge the gap between the two sides on the issue of Jewish settlements in Palestinian territory, putting the long hoped-for three-way meeting in doubt. Obama has asked Israel to freeze all settlement construction, a condition for Abbas to resume negotiations. But Israel has only committed to a partial halt.
Still, the sides decided to go ahead, even though Obama is considered unlikely to resolve the settlement showdown and announce a relaunching of peace talks.
"We have no grand expectations out of one meeting," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said.
Obama's agenda on Tuesday also included meeting Chinese President Hu Jintao at a fraught time in the Washington-Beijing relationship; playing luncheon host, as America's first black president, to sub-Saharan African leaders for talks on boosting opportunities for young people in their poverty-stricken nations; delivering key speeches to former President Bill Clinton's Global Initiative and to a U.N. heads-of-state session on the stalled issue of climate change; and ending the day with a U.N.-sponsored leaders dinner.
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