President Obama said Tuesday that it is "more vital than ever" for Israel and the Palestinians to restart peace talks, pushing for an outcome that looks more distant than ever as he plunges into an intense period of Middle East diplomacy.
Addressing reporters after a White House meeting with Jordan's King Abdullah II, Obama said the U.S. would continue to push for "an equitable and just solution to a problem that has been nagging the region for many, many years."
The push comes with Israeli and Palestinian peace talks stalemated as upheavals sweep the Middle East and North Africa. Obama's special Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, resigned several days ago after a largely fruitless two-year bid for peace. Obama is to deliver a speech on the Middle East and U.S. policy there Thursday, and the next day he'll welcome Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the White House.
Obama said he discussed the changes roiling the Middle East with Abdullah, whose country has a peace treaty with Israel and is a key U.S. partner in looking for peace.
"We both share the view that despite the many changes — or perhaps because of the many changes — that are taking place in the region, it's more vital than ever that both Israelis and Palestinians find a way to get back to the table and begin negotiating a process whereby they can create two states that are living side by side in peace and security," Obama said.
Abdullah praised Obama for his continued focus on "the core issue of an Israeli and Palestinian peace."
Yet Obama gave no indication of how the U.S. would bring about peace talks that have dried up since last September, when they were briefly restarted under U.S. pressure.
There are many, and daunting, barriers to resuming peace talks.
Israel's ambassador to the U.S., Michael Oren, said that Israel has been ready and willing to talk with the Palestinians. But, he says, there is a new twist to consider.
"It is very difficult to renew talks when A, the Palestinians have refused to sit down with us, and now B, further, they are making a national unity government with Hamas, which is recognized by the United States and the European Union as a terrorist organization that is openly committed to Israel's destruction," Oren said.
Oren told NPR that Israel also does not like the Palestinians' plan to seek U.N. recognition of a state in September, in hopes it will give them more leverage in negotiations with Israel. But he gave no indication that Netanyahu — who made clear in comments to his parliament Monday that he does not believe a Palestinian state is possible if Hamas does not recognize Israel — would come with any new diplomatic initiative to counter this move.
"The Palestinians have to make a choice," Oren said. "Their choice is between peace and terror. We are offering them the opportunity to make peace. If they are committed to declaring their state unilaterally, which will not bring about peace, there is little we can do. We are trying to get them to sit with us — we've been trying for most of the last two years."
But Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas wrote in an op-ed in the New York Times this week that it is Israel that has a choice to make — between a two-state solution or "settlement colonies."
Abbas is going to the U.N. out of frustration that years of talks with Israel have gone nowhere, while Israel continues to build up Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank. As Abbas sees it, U.N. membership will help Palestinians negotiate from a position of strength, and clear the way for Palestinian legal claims against Israel.
Inflaming tensions, 15 people were killed over the weekend in mass marches from Gaza, Syria and Lebanon toward Israel's borders.
On Jordan, Obama announced plans Tuesday for economic assistance to the country to help lay the conditions for economic growth and stability.
The changes sweeping the Middle East and North Africa have not skipped Jordan, where weeks of protests led Abdullah to dismiss his Cabinet and prime minister in February. Obama said the U.S. welcomes the initiatives taken by Abdullah "and feel confident that to the extent that he is able to move those reforms forward this will be good for the security and stability of Jordan, but also will be good for the economic prosperity of the people of Jordan."
NPR's Michele Kelemen contributed to this report, which includes material from The Associated Press Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.