PM: Israel, PA agreed to begin talks without preconditions

Obama meets with PM, Abb

Israel and the Palestinians have agreed to relaunch peace negotiations without any preconditions, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu declared on Tuesday. "There was general agreement, including on the part of the Palestinians, that the peace process has to be resumed as soon as possible with no preconditions," the premier told reporters in New York City. Earlier, US President Barack Obama expressed a similar sentiment, emerging from bilateral meetings with both Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas vowing to move ahead with the diplomatic process, while seeming to step back from his call for a total settlement freeze, saying that Israel now is discussing "restraining settlement activities." Prior to a tripartite meeting with the Mideast leaders, the US president said that Special Mideast envoy George Mitchell will continue holding negotiations with both sides, and Israel and the Palestinians will send delegations to Washington next week for the talks. He gave mid-October as a deadline for reviewing the status of the situation. "Permanent status negotiations must begin and begin soon. And more importantly, we must give those negotiations the opportunity to succeed," Obama said. "It is past time to talk about starting negotiations; it is time to move forward. It is time to show flexibility and common sense and sense of compromise that is necessary to achieve our goals," he continued, adding that leaders in the Middle East could not continue "the same patterns, taking tentative steps forward, then taking steps back." The US president reiterated that "the United States is committed to a just, lasting and comprehensive peace in the Middle East, which will result in two states living side by side - Palestine and Israel. It remains important for the Arab states to take steps to promote peace in the region." Obama pointed out that although both sides have taken some steps, they have not done enough. "The Palestinians have strengthened their efforts on security," he said, adding that they need to do more now about incitement and move forward on negotiations. Regarding Israel, Obama said it has "facilitated greater freedom of movement for Palestinians, and discussed important steps to restraining settlement activity, but they [Israel] need to translate the discussion into actions on that and other issues." Following his remarks, both Netanyahu and Abbas shook hands - the first time the gesture was made between the two leaders. Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, National Security Council head Uzi Arad, US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Mitchell took part in the earlier bilateral Israeli-American meeting. Netanyahu's 40-minute meeting with Obama was delayed due to traffic jams in the city, possibly related to FBI reports on terror threats. After meeting Netanyahu, Obama met with Abbas. Earlier on Tuesday, President Shimon Peres expressed hope that the tripartite meeting between Netanyahu, Abbas and Obama would lead to the resumption of Middle East peace talks. "All sides have tried to lower expectations from the meeting, but the expectations for peace are always high - I hope the meeting will lead to continued negotiations," Peres said.