Akiva Eldar
September 25, 2009 - 12:00am

Israeli and Palestinian leaders must move quickly to take advantage of this "unique moment" for making peace, following their meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama earlier this week, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel said in an interview Thursday with Charlie Rose on American public television station PBS.

The three-way meeting between Obama, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was not a photo op, Emanuel said.

"He [Obama] challenged them publicly, which means they now have to go home and face the people that they represent about the opportunities of peace versus the risk of not taking action."

He added that he believes both parties desire peace.

According to Emanuel, whose father is Israeli, Obama told both parties: "First of all, I have a lot of other challenges. I don't have an inexhaustible amount of time, but I'm going to spend whatever time it takes to help. But not more than you're willing to take."

"I will spend political capital, as [I did] in the heart of the Arab world, in Cairo," Emanuel quoted the president as saying. "Talk about the right of the state of Israel to exist in that region, as a secure country. And America will always have that friendship, and it runs deep."

Obama "also said he is willing to challenge the Israeli government and friends when he thinks they're wrong, as he has shown on the settlement[s], in a public way as well as in private," Emanuel added. This, he said, ensures that both sides trust Obama "to be an honest broker; don't miss that opportunity in his story."

Obama, Emanuel said, believes Israeli settlements "can be provocative to a peace process, in a negative sense."

But even more importantly, he believes that both parties, Israeli and Palestinian, need to "put aside the negotiations about the negotiations and begin their negotiations," Emanuel told interviewer Charlie Rose. "And you can't start as if there hasn't been a process."

"If you don't make progress and engage in the process of making peace," he continued, "you give Hamas and Hezbollah and Iran, who are enemies of the peace process, and vocal opponents of it, a veto."

Referring to Netanyahu, Emanuel said Obama views the prime minister as a "practical person," adding that Netanyahu "has shown" this "in the past," at the Wye Plantation talks in 1998.

"He'll take risks," Emanuel said of the prime minister. And "the risk[s] for peace, in the president's view, are less than the risks of not making peace."

Both Israel and the Palestinians must "seize an opportunity," he continued, because they are faced with "a unique moment in time in the region - because you have a strong Israeli government with a strong prime minister, and a Palestinian Authority that is seen by the Palestinian people as the best opportunity to seek their aspirations."

The administration's message to Iran, he added, is that if, in fact, the Iranians show that they "want to be a part of the community of nations, we're prepared to engage" them on all bilateral issues, including those that have "to do with stopping enriching nuclear fuel." A nuclearized Iran, he said, "is a threat to the region."

He also argued that Iran has lost much of its clout: "It's now back on its heel[s] rather than being the kind of power" it was thought to be.

Regarding North Korea, Emanuel said, "there's a collective sense of action both by Russia and China with the United States and Japan and South Korea about what we have to do and the type of sanctions we have imposed." Pyongyang, he added, "has seen that collective action in unison."

At a meeting that Obama held with Jewish leaders in July, the president referred to Emanuel as his "advisor on settlements." Netanyahu's associates view Emanuel as a left-winger who incites against the settlements, while The New York Times has described him as the most influential White House chief of staff in decades.


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