WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama pressed visiting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas Monday to help break the logjam to elusive Mideast peace talks, acknowledging with a deadline fast approaching that the task ahead is "very hard, it's very challenging."
"We're going to have to take some tough political decisions and risks if we're to move it forward," Obama said at the start of his Oval Office meeting with the Palestinian leader. "My hope is that we can continue to see progress in the coming days and weeks."
The White House meeting marked a renewed foray into a diplomatic minefield that the president has mostly left up to his secretary of state, John Kerry.
With just weeks left before a U.S.-imposed April deadline for completing a framework for peace talks, Obama is hoping presidential pressure might overcome a growing sense of pessimism on both sides. Just two weeks ago, Obama held a similar meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in which he urged Israel to make "tough decisions."
Obama said everyone understands what the contours of a Mideast peace deal would look like -- a Palestinian state based on territory captured by Israel in 1967 with "mutually agreed upon swaps" that ensure the security of Israel.
He praised Abbas as a leader who "has consistently renounced violence, has consistently sought a diplomatic and peaceful solution that allows for two states, side by side in peace and security — a state that allows for the dignity and sovereignty of the Palestinian people and a state that allows for Israelis to feel secure and at peace with their neighbors."
For his part, Abbas stressed the Palestinian position for a state based "on the 1967 borders so that the Palestinians can have their own independent state with east Jerusalem as its capital."
Israel captured the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip 47 years ago. Netanyahu rejects a return to those borders, and dividing the territory is complicated by Jewish settlements in areas Palestinians claim.
Speaking with reporters Monday afternoon, lead Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat signaled waning interest in continuing negotiations if no progress is made. Israelis have built more than 10,000 new settlement homes since the negotiations began last July, he said, resulting in the razing of over 200 Palestinian houses.
"Is this progress?" Erekat said after meeting Kerry. "We can do it, but I hope and pray that the Israeli government will make the choice: settlements or peace. They can't have both."
He said the possibility of continuing the talks past the deadline didn't come up in meetings with Obama and Kerry.
"The negotiations are up on April 29," Erakat said. "You don't need negotiations any more. You need decisions."
Abbas, speaking in Arabic that was translated, made special note of an agreement brokered by Kerry for Israel to release a fourth round of prisoners. He said the release by March 29 would make a "solid impression" that Israel is serious about peace.
The Obama administration is seeking a framework to guide negotiations on a permanent solution to the conflict. The core issues in the dispute include borders, the fate of Palestinian refugees and the status of the holy city of Jerusalem.
In recent days, the question of Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state has emerged as a particular flashpoint, despite initial pledges by all sides to keep the negotiations private. During Netanyahu's U.S. visit, he revved up pro-Israel advocates by insisting the Palestinians relent. "No excuses, no delays, it's time," he said.
For Abbas, formally recognizing a Jewish state could be politically explosive, as Palestinians argue it would undermine the rights of refugees who fled during Israel's formation as well as the rights of Israel's own Arab minority
Without acknowledging Israel as a Jewish state, Abbas on Monday made a special note that Palestinians have since 1988 recognized the legitimacy of Israel "and in 1993 we recognized the state of Israel."
Aaron David Miller, a Mideast peace negotiator under presidents of both parties, said both Abbas and Netanyahu have an incentive to stick with the talks — if only to avoid bearing the blame if the effort falters.
"Nobody wants to admit the emperor has no clothes. Nobody wants the talks to collapse," Miller said. "Kerry may or may not end up with a piece of paper, but he has skillfully created an investment trap in which both Abbas and Netanyahu will agree to continue negotiations."
Underscoring the pressure, hundreds of Abbas supporters in several cities across the West Bank staged rallies calling for him to stand up to Obama. Demonstrators held up posters of Abbas, pounded drums and urged him to resist calls to make concessions, especially on the issue of recognizing Israel as a Jewish state.
Members of Israel's hard-line government have questioned Abbas' readiness to make peace. But ahead of Monday's meeting, Abbas received a boost of support from Israeli President Shimon Peres, who said: "We have to continue to work with the Palestinian Authority and President Abbas" and called him "a man of principles."
Associated Press writers Lara Jakes in Washington and Josef Federman in Jerusalem contributed to this report.
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