Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu met US Mideast envoy George Mitchell Thursday night, a few hours after Time magazine published an interview with US President Barack Obama in which he admitted that he erred during his first year in office by raising too high expectations of a Middle East breakthrough.
"I'll be honest with you, this is just really hard," Obama said when asked about the Middle East. For all his administration's early engagement in the conflict, he acknowledged, things were not where he would want them to be.
"This is as intractable a problem as you get," Obama said. "Both sides - the Israelis and the Palestinians - have found that the political environment, the nature of their coalitions or the divisions within their societies were such that it was very hard for them to start engaging in a meaningful conversation. And I think that we overestimated our ability to persuade them to do so when their politics ran contrary to that."
Obama said that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas had "Hamas looking over his shoulder and, I think, an environment generally within the Arab world that feels impatient with any process."
As for Israel, he said that while Jerusalem showed a willingness "after a lot of time" to make "some modifications" in policy, it "still found it very hard to move with any bold gestures."
"I think it is absolutely true that what we did this year didn't produce the kind of breakthrough that we wanted, and if we had anticipated some of these political problems on both sides earlier, we might not have raised expectations as high," Obama said.
"Moving forward, though, we are going to continue to work with both parties to recognize what I think is ultimately their deep-seated interest in a two-state solution in which Israel is secure and the Palestinians have sovereignty and can start focusing on developing their economy and improving the lives of their children and grandchildren."
While the Prime Minister's Office had no official response to the president's remarks, Channel 2 quoted an unnamed senior Israeli official as saying that Israel had warned the Americans that their Middle East strategy would not bear fruit.
Another senior official tried to lower any expectations that Mitchell's current regional trip - the US envoy arrived in Israel Wednesday night from Lebanon and Syria - would lead to any dramatic progress, saying that it was not clear whether the Palestinian Authority had made the strategic decision to re-enter the talks.
The official said Netanyahu had no intention of giving Mitchell any more gestures to take to the Palestinians, saying that the Palestinians have climbed up a "eucalyptus tree," and every time a gesture is given as a ladder, they climb even higher.
Among various ideas for Israeli gestures that have been floated in recent days was for Israel to expand Area A in the West Bank, where the Palestinians have both civil and security control; remove additional roadblocks; release Palestinian prisoners to Abbas; open the border crossings into Gaza to allow for a greater flow of goods and materials; reopen the Orient House in east Jerusalem; and/or agree to a complete settlement freeze, including in east Jerusalem, for a short period of between three to six months.
Earlier in the day he met President Shimon Peres, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Opposition head Tzipi Livni.
Peres, before meeting Mitchell, told reporters that "time was of the essence" in the peace process, and that there were forces in the region who wanted to destroy has already been achieved.
Mitchell said he recognized the difficulties and complexities, but that "we will pursue" until a peace agreement is reached.
Meanwhile, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat on Thursday rejected Netanyahu's call for an Israeli presence along the eastern border of any future Palestinian state, terming the demand "absolutely unacceptable."
Palestinians want to create an independent state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem with no Israeli presence, military or civilian, he said, adding that "once again Netanyahu asks for dictation, not negotiations."
Netanyahu said in a speech to foreign journalists Wednesday evening that an Israeli presence on the eastern border of a future Palestinian state would be necessary to ensure that missiles, rockets and other weapons do not pour into that territory like they have into southern Lebanon and the Gaza Strip.
A senior diplomatic source stressed Thursday that this was not a pre-condition for talks, but something that would obviously be discussed in negotiations.
Meanwhile, during a press conference in Washington with British Foreign Secretary David Miliband on Thursday night, US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said that while the US would continue to work for Middle East peace, it was ultimately up to Israel and the Palestinians.
"This issue is between Israel and the Palestinians," she said. "The US, UK, EU and the Arab League, everybody can work together to create a positive atmosphere, we will continue to do whatever we can, and we urge both parties to return to the negotiations table."AP contributed to this report.