Obama: Mideast peace bid needed amid region’s unrest

By Matt Spetalnick

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Barack Obama said on Tuesday it was more urgent than ever to seize the opportunity to try to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts even as unrest swept the broader Middle East.

Speaking after White House talks with Israeli President Shimon Peres, Obama pressed Israel and the Palestinians to capitalize on the wave of political change in the Arab world and seek to advance their long-stalled peace process.

But Obama, whose administration’s attempts to broker a peace deal have yielded little since he took office, did not unveil any new initiative to bring the two sides together.

Obama said he and Peres, a veteran statesman and Nobel Peace laureate whose position is largely ceremonial, “share a belief that this is both a challenge and an opportunity.”

“With the winds of change blowing through the Arab world, it’s more urgent than ever that we try to seize the opportunity to create a peaceful solution between Palestinians and Israelis,” Obama told reporters.

Obama’s appearance in the White House briefing room was intended to focus on efforts to break a budget impasse in the U.S. Congress, but he was also drawn into talking about his meeting with Peres earlier in the day.

A new diplomatic push by the Obama administration is widely seen as vital to kick-start peace talks at a time when turmoil in the Arab world has many Israelis fearful of the rise of Islamists more hostile toward the Jewish state.

But after earlier stumbles, the White House has seemed uncertain how to proceed in the elusive quest for Middle East peace where many of Obama’s predecessors failed.

Though Peres’s meetings were not expected to achieve any breakthroughs, he could help lay the groundwork for a possible visit in coming months by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose relationship with Obama has sometimes been strained despite the two countries’ close alliance.

Peres, a leading member of Israel’s peace camp, has insisted that Israel must take advantage of the “Arab spring” that has seen autocratic rulers toppled in Egypt and Tunisia and sparked a revolt against Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.

But Netanyahu, who leads a right-leaning coalition, has taken a more cautious approach, resisting any major concessions to the Palestinians amid instability in the region.

Direct talks between Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas began on September 2 in Washington but broke down several weeks later when a 10-month partial Israeli freeze on settlement building in the occupied West Bank expired.

Palestinian officials have accused Netanyahu of destroying prospects for peace by allowing settlement building to continue on land that Palestinians want for a future state.

Israel points to Palestinians’ refusal to accept openly a Jewish state and continuing anti-Israeli incitement in the Palestinian territories.

(Reporting by Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Paul Simao)

Obama: Mideast peace bid needed amid region’s unrest