By HERB KEINON, HILARY LEILA KRIEGER, WASHINGTON
Tuesday's tripartite meeting in New York will serve as the "kick-off" to a renewed diplomatic process, even though negotiations with the Palestinians will not be launched at that time, senior diplomatic officials said Monday just prior to leaving for the United Nations.
The White House, meanwhile, tamped down expectations about the meeting between US President Barack Obama, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
"We have no grand expectations out of one meeting," said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs Monday, saying only that it would be an important way to continue "the hard work, day-to-day diplomacy that has to be done to seek a lasting peace."
Though the White House has long been laboring toward the meeting - originally conceived as a launching point for renewed peace talks, to be accompanied by gestures from both sides as well as the Arab world - the US has struggled just to get Israelis and Palestinians to meet on the sidelines of this week's UN General Assembly.
The trilateral meeting, which will follow two separate ones between Obama and each of the two leaders, represents a limited accomplishment for the US as it tries to get the sides to the bargaining table, but it may be one of symbolism more than substance.
According to the senior Israeli diplomatic officials, Israel and the US got extremely close to an agreement on the package that would launch the negotiations, but the Palestinians refused to budge on their demand that no negotiations would begin until Israel declared a total freeze.
One official said it would still be "a number of weeks" before the sides could launch negotiations, and that the interim period would be used to try and bridge the remaining gaps.
The official added that some kind of statement was expected following the tripartite meeting, although the sides were still working on the content. It was not yet clear whether they would issue a joint statement, or each side would issue its own, he said.
The State Department declined to give any specific outcome or achievements the US was seeking as a result of the meeting, with spokesman Ian Kelly referring such questions to the White House.
He did say that the meeting was "an indication of the president's own deep commitment to finding a way forward to this comprehensive peace, and it shows that he is personally engaged in the effort."
Indeed, observers have suggested that Obama has more invested in the three-way meeting than the other participants, and that to continue to be perceived as capable of achieving movement on the process, it is important that the talks take place in New York when all three men would be attending the opening of the General Assembly. At a minimum, the meeting should continue that process, but officials haven't yet addressed what further steps would be taken with such low hopes from Tuesday's encounter.
The Israeli official also noted that while it seemed as if Obama both wanted and needed the meeting more than Netanyahu or Abbas, both the Israelis and the Palestinians had nothing to gain from a continuation of the status quo.
He added that it was important for Israelis to realize that Obama was juggling a number of balls in the air, and that his meetings with Netanyahu and Abbas were only two of the extremely important meetings he would hold in New York. The most important, he said, was probably the meeting with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.
Obama will likely address the Middle East issue in one of the speeches he will deliver at the UN General Assembly, the official continued. However, he said it was unlikely that Iran would be the focus of his topic when he addressed the Security Council in a special meeting on nuclear nonproliferation. That speech, he said, would likely deal in more general and global terms.
Meanwhile, a top aide to Netanyahu said Monday that the prime minister wouldn't bend on his opposition to a settlement freeze when he met the American and Palestinian leaders in New York.
Netanyahu's media adviser, Nir Hefetz, said the prime minister would hold firm in his opposition to a settlement freeze.
"You have never heard the prime minister say that he will freeze settlements. The opposite is true," Hefetz told Army Radio ahead of Netanyahu's departure. "He sees the Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria as a Zionist enterprise, and he sees the settlers... as his brothers, our brothers, and acts accordingly."
Though some Israeli leaders may see halting settlements as a constructive step, Hefetz said, "the prime minister is not one of those people."
Netanyahu's meetings Tuesday with Obama and Abbas are scheduled to take place at New York's Waldorf Astoria Hotel.
A top Palestinian negotiator said Monday that he hoped the New York meeting would prod Netanyahu toward halting construction.
"Palestinians welcome the personal intervention of President Obama, particularly in light of Israel's continuing rejection of a comprehensive settlement freeze and a resumption of permanent status negotiations on all core issues without exception," Saeb Erekat said.
Also Monday, Defense Minister Ehud Barak met in Washington with US National Security Adviser James Jones and top White House Middle East adviser Dennis Ross, who is also in charge of the US talks with Iran.
The officials discussed an array of political and security regional topics in the meeting, including Iran, the peace process, the regional threats to Israel and the state of affairs in Afghanistan and North Korea.
Barak emphasized that Israel was interested in a peace process as such, led by Obama, revolving around an agreement with the Palestinians while safeguarding Israel's security interests.
The peace process and ensuing deal must include an agreement on the end of the conflict and an end to mutual demands, Barak said, and mentioned Israeli gestures, such as removing roadblocks and taking steps to aid the Palestinian economy.
The defense minister also reiterated the Israeli stance that the Goldstone Report on alleged war crimes Israel committed during Operation Cast Lead in Gaza encouraged and supported terror and terrorist groups, adding that everyone should unite against it.
After meeting with his American counterpart Robert Gates later on Monday, Barak will head to New York, where he will join Netanyahu.
Jonah Mandel, Jerusalem Post staff and AP contributed to this report.
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