Obama expresses optimism on Middle East peace

After meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, President Barack Obama on Tuesday expressed his hope that both Israelis and Palestinians would work toward peace.

Obama said peace is in the interests of both the Israeli and Palestinian governments, but warned “just because something makes sense, it doesn't mean it happens.”

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Obama said he and Mubarak had “an extensive conversation about how we could help to jump-start an effective process on all sides to move away from the status quo that is not working for the Israeli people, the Palestinian people or, I think, the region as a whole.”

Obama has discussed a lasting peace with several Arab leaders, but members of Congress have urged the president to put pressure on Arab states to take new steps toward achieving that goal.

There have also been signs that Israel is worried about the direction Obama, who has set out to change the image of the U.S. in the Muslim world, might take in shaping the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

In a letter sent to the White House last week, 71 senators, led by Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) and Jim Risch (R-Idaho), thanked Obama for his comments in the June 4 speech to the Muslim world, in which the president called for a multilateral approach to the peace process. But the senators suggested Arab states are not heeding his call.

“Over the past few months Israel has taken concrete measures to reaffirm its commitment to advancing the peace process,” the senators wrote. “We encourage Arab leaders to take similar tangible steps to demonstrate their commitment to the peace process.”

Mubarak, head of the Arab nation that has done more than most to promote peace between Israelis and Palestinians, said he had told Israel that temporary solutions to border disputes with the Palestinian Authority would not work, but he said Arab states will work toward peace.

“I have contacted the Israelis, and they said perhaps you can talk about a temporary solution or perhaps the final status,” Mubarak said through a translator. “But I told them, no, forget about the temporary solution and forget about temporary borders.

“We support the efforts of the United States to move toward finding a solution,” Mubarak added.

In their letter, Bayh, Risch and the majority of their colleagues called for an end to the Arab League boycott of Israel, a beginning of open meetings between Arab leaders and their Israeli counterparts and normalization of travel and trade relationships.

The letter also calls on the president to urge Arab leaders to make “dramatic gestures” toward Israel, as King Hussein of Jordan and Anwar Sadat of Egypt did; both late rulers sought out peace accords with Israel decades ago.

The letter, pushed by the prominent pro-Israel lobbying group AIPAC, temporarily split the Israeli lobby. Left-leaning organizations urged some senators to withhold their signatures unless the letter included recognition of the steps some Arab states have taken toward moving the peace process forward.

On Tuesday, the president said Israel had heard concerns from the U.S. about ongoing construction of settlements in disputed territories, and that he hoped both sides as well as Arab nations would show progress in coming days.

“If all sides are willing to move off of the rut that we're in currently, then I think there is an extraordinary opportunity to make real progress. But we're not there yet,” Obama said. “I'm encouraged by some of the things I'm seeing on the ground.”