By HERB KEINON
With the US continuing to have difficulty putting together a package that would relaunch Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, US President Barak Obama sent some warm words toward Israel on Tuesday night, saying Israeli-US relations were "more than a strategic alliance."
Obama's video-taped words were broadcast at the beginning of President Shimon Peres's Facing Tomorrow Conference that opened in Jerusalem (Click here to watch a live video feed from the conference)
In what was clearly a reference to the ongoing negotiations, Obama said that "our moment in history is filled with challenges that test our will and invite pessimism."
Faced with these challenges, like the obstacle standing in the way of peace between Israel and the Palestinians, he said "we can choose to defer action, to sustain a dangerous status quo, or we can meet the challenges of our time head-on. Like you, I believe now is the time to act."
All of us, he said, "must accept our share of responsibility for progress."
Obama's statements were followed by a speech by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, in which he said that peace with the Palestinians was possible, but that it demanded "leadership and courage from both sides."
Netanyahu, referring to Mahmoud Abbas as the chairman of the Palestinian Authority, not its president, said the time had come to "lead your people to peace," and to say that the time has come to "end this conflict once and for all."
The prime minister challenged Abbas to say publicly what he said was often said behind closed doors, and to give a speech outlining his vision of peace and reconciliation with Israel, similar to the one that Netanyahu gave in June at Bar-Ilan University.
"Now it is your turn to say the truth about peace, the need for it and the true way to achieve it. What is important is to do it publicly, not just behind closed doors; to say the truth about peace publicly, to our people and to the Palestinian people," the prime minister said.
But while Obama and Netanyahu were delivering relatively upbeat speeches, on the ground the US was finding it difficult to get both sides to agree to a formula that would enable the restart of direct negotiations.
According to Israeli sources, Jerusalem did not accept two conditions put forth by the Palestinians, and apparently backed by the US: that the start of the negotiations would be accompanied by a statement saying the goal was to reach an agreement within two years, and that the goal was the establishment of a Palestinian state with permanent borders based on an Israeli withdrawal.
The Palestinians, meanwhile, continue to oppose entering into any negotiations until there is a complete settlement construction halt, including in east Jerusalem. Netanyahu has made clear he would agree to a temporary moratorium on new housing, but that this would not include Jerusalem, and that some 3,000 housing units either under construction or in advanced planning stages would be built.
The negotiations are currently taking place separately between the US and Israel's team, made up of Netanyahu's envoy Yitzhak Molcho, and Defense Minister Ehud Barak's chief of staff Michael Herzog; and the US and the Palestinian team, headed by PA negotiator Saeb Erekat.
Israeli and Palestinian officials who met with US Middle East envoy George Mitchell over the last few days said they had failed to come to a compromise despite days of talks.
"There's no agreement," Erekat said following State Department meetings on Tuesday, which included a meeting with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The Fatah negotiator stated that it was Israel, and not the Palestinians, who was at fault for the impasse in talks.
Speaking in Washington, Erekat accused Israel of feigning interest in negotiations while claiming the Palestinians were preventing progress.
Erekat implored US officials to check which side was fulfilling its international obligations and which side wasn't, stressing that Israel has been refusing to negotiate with the Palestinians on core issues and has not yet frozen settlement construction.
Israeli envoys Molcho and Herzog also held meetings at the State Department on Tuesday. "There is still more left to do," one Israeli official said.
Clinton is supposed to be reporting to Obama on the situation in the coming days, and Erekat said he hoped that the report would identify the "spoiler" in the talks, indicating that he believed that would be Israel. State Department spokesman Ian Kelly had little to say about Clinton's anticipated report, saying, "I anticipate that is going to happen within the next few days."
Washington's UN ambassador, Susan Rice, meanwhile, met with President Shimon Peres in the capital on Tuesday and, according to a statement issued by Peres's office, said the US would continue to stand by Israel as a "true friend," including in the struggle against the Goldstone Report. She is scheduled to meet with Netanyahu on Wednesday.
"Your war against terrorism is clear to us, as well as the complexity involved in it," Rice was quoted as telling Peres. "As the US's ambassador to the UN I will continue to act in the future as I have acted up until now."
The US is widely expected to veto the Goldstone Report if it makes its way to the UN Security Council.
Hilary Leila Krieger and Jpost.com staff contributed to this report
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