Helene Cooper, Alan Cowell
The New York Times
June 2, 2009 - 12:00am

On the eve of a visit to the Middle East and Europe, President Obama on Tuesday played down a dispute with Israel over his demand for a suspension of further Jewish settlement in the West Bank but reiterated his call for a two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians that Israel’s hawkish leaders have not accepted.

Mr. Obama said that he believed the United States was “going to be able to get serious negotiations back on track” between Israel and the Palestinians. Israeli officials have publicly rejected Mr. Obama’s call for all expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank to be frozen, saying natural expansion of the settlements should be permitted.

In an interview with the BBC, Mr. Obama also said he hoped to achieve progress by the end of the year on the dispute over Iran’s contentious nuclear activity through “tough, direct diplomacy.” He insisted that Iran “set aside ambitions for a nuclear weapon.” Tehran says its nuclear enrichment program is solely for civilian purposes.

The president is to arrive in Saudi Arabia on Wednesday and deliver a keynote speech to the Muslim world from Cairo on Thursday. He then plans to travel to France for the 65th anniversary of the D-Day landings on June 6, 1944 that turned the tide of World War II in Europe.

The visits to Saudi Arabia and Egypt will be his first as president. In an earlier visit to the region in April after the Group of 20 summit in London, he traveled to Turkey and Iraq.

On Monday, President Obama indicated that he would be more willing to criticize Israel than previous administrations have been.

“Part of being a good friend is being honest,” Mr. Obama said in an interview with NPR News. “And I think there have been times where we are not as honest as we should be about the fact that the current direction, the current trajectory, in the region is profoundly negative, not only for Israeli interests but also U.S. interests.

“We do have to retain a constant belief in the possibilities of negotiations that will lead to peace,” he added. “I’ve said that a freeze on settlements is part of that.”

His comments were made as Israeli officials dug in their heels against a settlement freeze. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Monday that halting construction in settlements in the West Bank would be equal to “freezing life,” and, therefore, “unreasonable.”

In the 15-minute interview on Tuesday, broadcast on BBC Radio 4’s Today program, Mr. Obama said the “conversation” with Israel was at an early stage — both on the settlement issue and on the demand for a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

“Not only is it in the interest of the Palestinian people to have a state, it’s in the interest of the Israeli people to stabilize the situation there,” he said.

“And it’s in the interest of the United States that we’ve got two states living side by side in peace and security.”

Referring to the debate about settlements, he said: “Diplomacy is always a matter of a long hard slog. It’s never a matter of quick results.”

He also said it was “in the world’s interests for Iran to set aside ambitions for a nuclear weapon.”

“Although I don’t want to put artificial time tables on that process, we do want to make sure that, by the end of this year, we’ve actually seen a serious process move forward,” he said.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017