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US: Obama urges action to escape Middle East 'rut'

By Stephen Collinson
Wed Aug 19 17:29:04 EST 2009

WASHINGTON, Aug 18 AFP - US President Barack Obama says Middle East peace moves are in a "rut" as visiting Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak pushes for swift final status talks between Israelis and Palestinians.

Obama also on Tuesday praised Israel for curtailing new tenders for settlements in the occupied West Bank until early 2010, and called on Arab states and the Palestinians to join the Jewish state in making concessions to revive hopes of a lasting settlement.

Veteran Middle East power broker Mubarak was attending his first presidential summit in the United States in five years, following differences with the previous George W. Bush administration.

He argued that rows over issues like settlements and proposals for piecemeal Arab concessions to Israel were bogging down the process.

"We need to move to the final status solution and level," Mubarak told reporters as he sat with Obama in the Oval Office.

"I have contacted the Israelis and they said 'perhaps we can talk about a temporary solution,' but I told them 'No.' I told them: 'Forget about the temporary solution, forget about temporary borders.'"

Final status talks would tackle the most intractable issues, including the status of Jerusalem, borders of a final Palestinian state and the right of return for Palestinian refugees.

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman told US lawmakers last week that pushing for a fast-track deal over the next year would not work and proposed concentrating on security and Palestinian economic conditions.

Obama, throwing himself deeper into Middle East peacemaking that has confounded his predecessors, was optimistic, despite making little apparent progress so far for his peace effort.

"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 are not there yet."

The Israeli government, Obama said, was taking talks with Washington seriously amid a rare public showdown between the two close allies.

"There has been movement in the right direction," he noted.

"My hope is that we are going to see not just movement from the Israelis, but also from the Palestinians around issues of incitement and security, from Arab states that show their willingness to engage Israel."

Palestinians and other critics dismissed the Israeli move to temporarily stop issuing settlement tenders as insignificant, pointing out that construction continues on the ground in a number of settlements in Palestinian territory.

Mubarak told Obama he would not offer concessions to Israel until it took "concrete steps," his spokesman Soliman Awaad said, adding that Arab states believed Netanyahu slowed peace moves during his first spell as Israeli leader.

"It's like an egg and chicken situation," Awaad told reporters. "He told him it won't fly. He reminded him that this was a deja vu situation."

The US president, he added, hoped to unveil a comprehensive Middle East peace plan around the time of the UN General Assembly (UNGA) next month.

"Today, Mr Obama said that hopefully after (US Middle East peace envoy George) Mitchell and Netanyahu meet next week, the peace blueprint should be there in the course of next month, in September," Awaad said.

But White House spokesman Robert Gibbs denied knowing of such a plan, although he said the UNGA would be an important chance to forge progress.

The State Department confirmed Mitchell was scheduled to meet Netanyahu before the end of the month.

During his first White House talks with Obama, Mubarak poured praise on the US leader's historic speech to the Muslim world in Cairo in June.

"It was a very strong address and it removed all doubts about the United States and the Muslim world," he said.

The White House said Obama raised concerns about human rights and political reform in Egypt, after the president had been accused of soft pedaling the issue to get Cairo to back his peace drive.

"I would not agree with the premise that we have somehow swept under the rug, in either this relationship or in relationships with other countries, the notion of human rights or greater democracy in the world," Gibbs said.