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Urging Israeli-Palestinian talks, Obama backs down on settlements

At the UN Tuesday, Obama appeared to drop his demand that Israel freeze settlement growth as a precondition to negotiations by calling on it to “restrain” activity instead.

By Correspondent / September 23, 2009

President Barack Obama may be dropping – or at least softening – his administration’s demand that Israel freeze settlement growth in the West Bank as a precondition to starting peace negotiations with the Palestinians.

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That would mark a stark change for the administration, which had pressed Israel to declare a full freeze to all settlement growth in the West Bank to jumpstart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

Mr. Obama met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly Tuesday.

Officials from all three sides said after the meeting that Obama had abandoned the ultimatum he had given Israel, according to some news reports.

CNN reports that United States special envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell said the US is "not identifying any issue as being a precondition or an impediment to negotiation."

Abandoning the terminology the US has been using in months of urging a halt to growth in the Israeli outposts on land claimed by Palestinians, Obama Tuesday referred to “restraining” settlement activity, rather than freezing it.

"Obama told Abbas that he couldn't get the settlement freeze and promised to keep trying, but that it shouldn't be a condition for talks and it was time to move on," one Palestinian aide to Abbas said.
Several U.S. officials said that Obama told Abbas that although the U.S. believe a settlement freeze would create a better atmosphere for talks to begin, the lack of one should not be used an as excuse not to talk.
"Let's not have the perfect be the enemy of the good," Obama told Abbas, according to the officials.

The Los Angeles Times reports that White House officials say Obama’s position on settlements remains the same.

Administration officials insisted later that the U.S. position on Jewish settlements had not changed. But the shift in language was widely interpreted by Palestinians and Israelis as a sign the Obama administration was jettisoning a U.S. stance that had alienated many Israelis and their U.S. supporters.

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