Image: Benjamin Netanyahu, Barack Obama, Mahmoud Abbas
Charles Dharapak  /  AP
President Barack Obama meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, in New York on Tuesday on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly.
updated 9/22/2009 5:25:46 PM ET 2009-09-22T21:25:46

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.

High-stakes proposition
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.

More on: Benjamin Netanyahu | Mahmoud Abbas

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Video: Netanyahu: Abbas meeting ‘long overdue’

  1. Transcript of: Netanyahu: Abbas meeting ‘long overdue’

    MATT LAUER, co-host: Benjamin Netanyahu is the prime minister of Israel . Mr. Prime Minister, it's good to have you here. Good morning.

    Mr. BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: Good morning.

    LAUER: Let me put that picture right back up, OK, the handshake between you and Mr. Abbas . Does it mean anything? Does it show any sign of progress, or is that a long overdue photo-op?

    Mr. NETANYAHU: Well, I think it's long overdue, and I don't think it's just a photo-op. I mean, I've been -- since being installed as prime minister, which is about six months ago, I said, `Let's meet and let's talk peace . Let's not talk about talking peace , let's just get together and do it.' And I'm glad that President Obama hosted this meeting, and I think with goodwill from all sides we can get this thing going.

    LAUER: But where do we stand? I mean, the president -- you're saying the right things, President Obama 's saying the right things. He says it's the time to act.

    Mr. NETANYAHU: Hm. Hm.

    LAUER: There's a window of opportunity. He's going to send Hillary Clinton and George Mitchell back to the Middle East and try to build on this progress. But the fact of the matter is George Mitchell just returned from the Middle East and accomplished almost nothing. He didn't get the Palestinians to agree to negotiate without preconditions. He didn't get you to agree to dropping your insistence there could be no freeze of settlements. So where do we stand? What progress can we build on?

    Mr. NETANYAHU: I think the crucial thing is preconditions. We can all pile on preconditions from here to infinity and we'll waste another six months or another six years. I think the main point is to do exactly what we began doing yesterday, to get into a room and say, look, how do we get a real peace between Israel and the Palestinians ? Why don't we resolve our problems so we can give our children a better future? Now, mind you, I haven't waited. We've been six months in office; we've removed hundreds of road blocks, checkpoints, opened the Allenby Bridge so goods and services and people can come back and forth into the West Bank . The results are spectacular. The West Bank economy, according to the IMF , is growing at 7 percent. If we meet and talk, we can make it grow double digits .

    LAUER: But your critics...

    Mr. NETANYAHU: And that is -- that is good for peace . It's not a substitute, but it helps.

    LAUER: Your critics say this, they say your -- you say that you're willing to talk to the Palestinians without preconditions.

    Mr. NETANYAHU: Hm.

    LAUER: But by refusing to freeze settlements on the West Bank , they say that that's a hollow promise, that you know that you have basically stopped peace talks before they can begin. How do you respond to that?

    Mr. NETANYAHU: This is an amazing claim. We've been talking to the Palestinians from 1993 , which is, what, 16 years, successive Israeli governments to successive Palestinian administrations. There's never been this precondition of freezing settlements ever put up. It's just been put up now artificially. Now look, I'm willing to make gestures to help this process...

    LAUER: How big a gesture?

    Mr. NETANYAHU: Well, we'll get there very soon, I suppose. But I'll tell you one thing I'm not willing to do. I can't freeze life. There are a quarter of a million people there in these communities which are called settlements. They're really, most of them, bedroom suburbs of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem . They need schools, they need kindergartens, they need health clinics. Mind you, the fate of the settlements will be determined in the negotiations, at the end of the negotiations, but you can't determine it before the negotiations. So I think the sooner we get off this obstacle and get down to the business of forging a real peace , with the Palestinians recognizing the Jewish state of Israel and allowing for them a demilitarized state -- that is, a state in which they can govern themselves with all the powers they need, absent those that could threaten the state of Israel -- I think that's the winning formula for peace .

    LAUER: Let me ask you about...

    Mr. NETANYAHU: A demilitarized state that recognizes the Jewish state .

    LAUER: Does President Obama -- blunt question -- possess right now the clout and the power to move this process forward? Some have suggested that the weak economy in this country has weakened this president to the point where he has no clout.

    Mr. NETANYAHU: Oh, I disagree. I think that any president of the United States wields clout. Don't sell short the United States of America and its presidents, including President Obama . Of course he has clout and of course he has -- he commands respect. I think also his speech in the Arab -- to the Arab world was very important, because many in the Arab world will say if President Obama supports this process, if he would support and outcome or a resolution that Mr. Abbas and myself would arrive at, that would have, I think, an important boost, it would give an important boost to a peace that we want. And I think we can achieve if we have on the other side a Sadat . You know, we got Sadat , we made peace . We got the late King Hussein , we made peace . I'll never forget how he came to the White River Conference and -- from his death bed and he moved me to tears. We can make peace . Now Mr. Abbas has to decide -- Abu Mazen , the head of the Palestinian Authority -- are you an Arafat or are you Sadat ? If you're a Sadat , I will make peace with you.

    LAUER: Real quickly, I want to end -- and I'm sorry to cut short the time. But on Iran , you said that the -- that Iran is weaker than people think. You are convinced they are attempting to build nuclear weapons , and you've said tougher sanctions are a way to prevent that. China and Russia have never been on board with those tougher sanctions. The president tried yesterday to talk to the Chinese about that. It's unclear if he made any progress. Absent China and Russia joining that move for tougher sanctions, if they continue to move down the road, Iran , and develop nuclear weapons , in your opinion, at what point do you go it alone? At what point do you strike?

    Mr. NETANYAHU: I will say, Matt , that I don't deal in hypotheticals. Every country reserves the right to defend itself, and we're no exception. But Iran 's acquisition or development of nuclear weapons is a threat to everyone. I mean, it's the major terror-sponsoring state of our time, and it could give those nuclear weapons to terrorists or give them a nuclear umbrella which will bring terrorism beyond our wildest dreams to levels that are unimaginable. We just had a scare here in Manhattan . Just imagine terrorists with nuclear bombs . It makes this development so dangerous that it should not be merely Israel , but the entire world that unites to prevent this outcome. And let me say one thing. I don't know if they'll pass it through the UN , through the Security Council , but this is the time to act with what Hillary Clinton called "crippling sanctions." And the Iranian regime is vulnerable; it's economically vulnerable, it's politically extremely vulnerable because -- for a simple

    reason: the Iranian people hate it. They detest this medieval, backward regime that is gunning them down, you know, as the lie choking in their blood on the sidewalks protesting for freedom. This is the time to apply pressure against this criminal regime. And even if the UN Security Council can't get its act together, the leading powers of the day could put enormous pressure on Iran , especially when it comes to imported petroleum products , what we call in simple language gasoline.

    LAUER: Right. Mr. Prime Minister, it's good to have you in the studio. Good luck this week at the UN .

    Mr. NETANYAHU: Thank you, Matt. Good morning.

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