By Justin Sink - 03/17/14 12:41 PM EDT
President Obama said he would pursue the “elusive goal” of a comprehensive peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians during a meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Monday at the White House.
“It's very hard. It's very challenging. We're going to have to take some tough political decisions and risks if we're able to move it forward,” Obama said. “And my hope is that we can continue to see progress in the coming days and weeks.”
During a visit with Obama just two weeks ago, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared it was “about time for the Palestinian people to recognize a state for the Jewish people.”
But Abbas has flatly refused to do so. Palestinian leaders have said the gesture would carry unacceptable symbolic and practical ramifications, and could marginalize the Arab minority within Israel. The demand is also seen as a bid on Netanyahu’s part to pre-empt “right of return” claims by Palestinian refugees.
The issue was further complicated when Secretary of State John Kerry told the House Committee on Foreign Affairs last week that it was “a mistake” to allow the issue to play an outsized role in negotiations.
“I think it’s a mistake for some people to be, you know, raising it again and again as the critical decider of their attitude towards the possibility of a state and peace, and we’ve obviously made that clear,” Kerry said.
White House officials told The New York Times and The Associated Press that President Obama does not expect to persuade Abbas to agree to the recognition in their meeting. Instead, they said, Obama would be prodding to see whether the Palestinian leader was willing to agree to lesser concessions as a sign of good faith negotiating.
“I think everybody understands the outlines of what a peace deal would look like, involving a territorial compromise on both sides based on '67 lines with mutually agreed-upon swaps that would ensure that Israel was secure, but would also ensure the Palestinians have a sovereign state in which they can achieve the aspirations that they've held for so long,” Obama said in the Oval Office.
Abbas, seated next to the president, said the leaders “don’t have any time to waste” in their efforts.
“Time is not on our side, especially given the very difficult situation that the Middle East is experiencing and the entire region is facing, and we hope that we would [be] able to seize this opportunity to achieve a lasting peace,” he said.
Although he did not directly address the question of Jewish statehood, Abbas did appear to allude to the dispute by claiming that, for decades, the Palestinian Authority had “been extending our hands to our Israeli neighbors so that we can reach a fair and lasting peace to this problem.”
“Since 1988, we have recognized international legitimacy resolutions, and this was a very courageous step on the part of the Palestinian leadership. And in 1993, we recognized the state of Israel,” Abbas said.
But the president’s decision not to press Abbas explicitly on the question of Jewish statehood could anger allies in Israel. Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon has criticized the U.S. over Kerry’s comments and suggested he was not a fair broker for the peace deal. He also dismissed Abbas as only “a partner for receiving, not giving” in an interview with Israel’s Channel 2.
Kerry, whom Obama praised as “working diligently,” was at the Oval Office discussion, and met with Abbas on Sunday for preparatory talks. According to a State Department official, Kerry “reiterated that we are at a pivotal time in the negotiations and, while these issues have decades of history behind them, neither party should let tough political decisions at this stage stand in the way of a lasting peace.”This post was updated at 3:54 p.m.