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(photo credit: GPO)
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu emerged from his meeting with US President Barack Obama and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas Tuesday saying that the Palestinians had dropped their preconditions for negotiations, and that the discussion now centered on the framework of the talks.
The questions being dealt with now, Netanyahu said at a press briefing with Israeli reporters, were "how the discussions will be held, within what framework and how they will be characterized."
The prime minister, who termed both his bilateral talks with Obama and the tripartite talks with Obama and Abbas as "good," said the importance of the meeting was in its very existence, and that it was an ice-breaker.
"There was a general agreement by all sides, including the Palestinians, to renew the negotiations without preconditions," he said.
The Palestinians have said up until now that they would not renew talks with Israel until it declared a complete settlement freeze.
In a moment that was deep in symbolism but offered little expectation of any immediate breakthrough, Obama showed frustration with the looming gap between the two sides as the US again tried to foster a deal.
Neither Netanyahu nor Abbas spoke during a brief appearance before reporters as the meeting got under way. But after Obama's brief opening remarks, he strode over to shake each man's hand. Then the two men 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 challenged Israel and the Palestinians to find a way to advance the peace process, and outlined a timetable of steps for the coming weeks.
"Simply put, it is past time to talk about starting negotiations," Obama said. "It is time to move forward."
Everyone had "worked tirelessly," but had still not done enough, he said.
The US president, who first called for a complete settlement freeze earlier this year, seemed to step back from this demand during the comments he made before the tripartite meeting, but after meeting separately with Netanyahu and Abbas, he noted positively that Israel had "discussed important steps to restrain settlement activity."
He also said there was now a need to "translate the discussions into actions."
Obama also praised Israel for facilitating greater freedom of movement for Palestinians.
The US president also praised the Palestinians for strengthening "their efforts on security," and then criticized them gently, saying they needed to do more to stop incitement and "move forward on negotiations."
While not declaring a relaunch of full-blown negotiations, as he had hoped, Obama said that US Middle East envoy George Mitchell would meet next week in Washington with teams sent by Netanyahu and Abbas. He said that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who took part in Tuesday's meetings, would report back to him on these talks by mid-October.
He called on the sides to demonstrate "flexibility and common sense and a sense of compromise" in creating a framework for permanent-status talks.
He also said it remained "important for the Arab states to take concrete steps to promote peace," an indication that these steps, which the Obama administration has made a pillar of its Middle East policy, have not been forthcoming.
"I am committed to pressing ahead in the weeks and months and years to come, because it is absolutely critical that we get this issue resolved," Obama said. There was no joint Israeli-Palestinian-US statement.
Netanyahu said he hoped that the negotiations would restart in the next few weeks.
After the meeting, Abbas insisted that Israel must halt settlement building in the West Bank, including east Jerusalem.
"In today's meetings, we confirmed our positions and commitment to the road map and its implementation. We also demanded that the Israeli side fulfill its commitments on settlements, including on natural growth," Abbas said in a statement.
"As for resuming talks, this depends on a definition of the negotiating process that means basing them on recognizing the need to withdraw to the 1967 borders and ending the occupation, as was discussed with the previous Israeli government when we defined the occupied territories as the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem," he went on. "This was reiterated in the talks with President Obama and in the trilateral talks. We believe the American administration will review the positions of the two sides in the coming weeks to make it possible for us to renew peace talks based on our stated position."
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who, along with Defense Minister Ehud Barak, participated in both the bilateral and tripartite meetings, said at the press briefing that he had made clear to the Palestinians that he expected them to withdraw their petition to the International Criminal Court in the Hague regarding alleged IDF war crimes during Operation Cast Lead.
Lieberman said that the PA, which wanted Israel to deliver a pummeling blow to Hamas in Gaza, could not then turn to the ICC and accuse it of war crimes.
"This is the first thing we expect of them," he said.
Lieberman, who some thought would be shunned by the PA officials at the meeting, said Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat had wished him a good year in Hebrew, and that Abbas had said, "Hello, foreign minister," to which Lieberman had replied that there was no need for such formality, considering that they were neighbors.
Netanyahu said his bilateral talks with Obama, which also included a private conversation, had focused on the diplomatic process, the recently released Goldstone Report accusing Israel of war crimes in Gaza, and Iran.
The prime minister would not divulge any details of the conversation on Iran, nor what he planned on saying in his speech at the UN on Thursday, although Iran is expected to be a major focus.
Netanyahu said that during the negotiations, all the "core issues" would be on the table, though he was not committed to what the previous government had offered. He said that although he did not know whether Abbas "could deliver the goods," he was intent on trying.
AP contributed to this report.