Obama sees huge hurdles in Mideast peace talks
US urges Israel to extend settlement freeze
U.S. President Barack Obama said on Friday he saw "enormous hurdles" ahead in Middle East peace negotiations, but said it was a risk worth taking and the United States would remain engaged even if talks break down.
"There are enormous hurdles between now and our endpoint," Obama said at a news conference.
Obama said the talks between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who are due to meet again in Egypt on Sept. 14-15, represented a chance to realize the goal of an independent Palestinian state living side by side in peace with a secure Israel.
"The two parties need each other. That doesn't mean it's going to work. Ultimately it's going to be up to them," Obama said.
"I remain hopeful but this is going to be tough," Obama said. "It's a risk worth taking because the alternative is a status quo that is unsustainable. And so if these talks break down, we're going to keep on trying."
Obama said a successful peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians could "change the strategic landscape in the Middle East" and help U.S. efforts to pressure Iran over its nuclear program.
"This is something in our interests. We're not just doing this to feel good. We're doing it because it will help secure America as well."
The two parties need each other. That doesn't mean it's going to work. Ultimately it's going to be up to them
US President Barack Obama
Obama presses Israel to extend settlement freeze
Obama called Friday on Israel to extend a freeze on settlements as he pledged a never-say-die approach to the new Middle East peace talks, calling the effort "a risk worth taking."
Saying last week's launch of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations "exceeded lots of people's expectations," Obama looked to the September 26 expiration of the partial freeze on new Jewish housing in the West Bank as a key hurdle.
"A major bone of contention during the course of this month is going to be the potential lapse of the settlement moratorium," Obama told a White House press conference.
He said he had told Netanyahu at the White House last week that, "given so far the talks are moving forward in a constructive way, it makes sense to extend that moratorium."
Obama said he also told Abbas -- who was in Washington last week for the negotiations launched by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton -- to give Netanyahu room to maneuver.
He urged Abbas to "show the Israeli public that you are serious and constructive in these talks so that the politics for Prime Minister Netanyahu, if he were to extend the settlement moratorium, would be a little bit easier."
Israeli officials have indicated that they will not extend the freeze as is, but the Palestinians have warned that they would break off the new talks if settlement building continues on occupied land.
Obama sounded cautiously optimistic as Clinton was due in Egypt and Israel next week for round two of the first direct talks to be held since December 2008 when Israel launched a three-week war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
"I remain hopeful but this is going to be tough," Obama said.
The president said Netanyahu and Abbas came to the White House talks "with a sense of purpose and seriousness and cordiality that frankly exceeded lots of people's expectations."
He recalled that the two leaders last week affirmed the goal of creating two states living side-by-side and agreed to hold negotiations roughly every two weeks.
Last week, Hamas launched two attacks against settlers in the West Bank, killing four Israelis and wounding two others.
Asked if he personally is willing to step in if the talks grind to a halt, Obama said his administration will encourage and facilitate the negotiations, even though the parties must ultimately decide on peace.
He said the two sides "need each other," with the Palestinians seeking a state of their own and Israel wanting to preserve its character as both a Jewish and democratic state.
He said he understood it was "a risk for us to promote" the new peace talks but "it's a risk worth taking because the alternative is a status quo that is unsustainable."
Refusing to accept failure, Obama pledged: "If these talks break down, we're going to keep on trying."
Many analysts say deep U.S. engagement is vital to the success of the negotiations, adding that such talks have failed in past when U.S. administrations were reluctant to intervene.
Obama said a goal he has set for himself and his team is to help Netanyahu and Abbas establish mutual trust and "start thinking about how they can help the other succeed as opposed to" finding ways to sabotage each other.
Obama said a peace settlement offers the potential to "change the strategic landscape in the Middle East" in a way that helps Washington deal with Iran's suspect nuclear program and its alleged support for militant groups.
"We're not just doing this to feel good. We're doing it because it will help secure America as well," the president said.
A major bone of contention during the course of this month is going to be the potential lapse of the settlement moratorium
Spain upgrades Palestinian mission
Spain's government said Friday it plans to upgrade the Palestinian diplomatic mission in Madrid due to the prospect of an eventual "creation and recognition of a Palestinian state."
The "General Delegation of Palestine" that has been in the Spanish capital since 1986 will henceforth be called the "Palestine diplomatic mission," the foreign ministry said in a statement.
It said the head of the mission will have the status of ambassador, and will be formally accredited in a ceremony by King Juan Carlos.
Spain said the decision "reaffirms the friendship and solidarity that unites the Spanish people and the Palestinian people."
It should be viewed "in the perspective of the creation and recognition of a Palestinian state in a necessarily brief timeframe as a result of the negotiation process relaunched after the Washington summit of September 2," the statement said.
The decision was announced three days after talks in Madrid between Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and Spain's Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero during the first Spanish-Palestinian summit.
Speaking at a joint news conference at the end of the one-day gathering on Tuesday, Zapatero said the summit was a sign of Spain's backing for the creation of a democratic and free Palestinian state based on the state of law.