By Arshad Mohammed
NEW YORK (Reuters) – The United States urged Arab states on Saturday to provide political backing for the Palestinians to begin peace talks with Israel even if a freeze on Jewish settlements in the West Bank is not in place.
U.S. President Barack Obama on Tuesday met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas for talks that yielded no signs of a breakthrough on reviving negotiations to end the six-decade conflict.
In a speech at the U.N. General Assembly a day later, Obama said “the time has come to re-launch negotiations without preconditions,” a tacit admission that he may be unable to first secure a freeze on Israeli settlements.
A U.S. official on Saturday said Washington was still trying to put together a package of reciprocal Israeli, Arab and Palestinian steps — including a settlements freeze — in advance but that this could not hold up the start of talks.
“We don’t want to have the perfect be the enemy of the good,” U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman told reporters. “We’re not going to wait for the perfect package before we start negotiations.”
U.S. officials had hoped that Tuesday’s meeting would allow Obama to announce that peace negotiations would resume.
The United States had tried in advance to work out a deal under which Israel would halt settlement building, Palestinians would do more to prevent attacks on Israelis and Arab states would move toward normalizing ties with the Jewish state.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met senior officials from nine Arab states to discuss those issues as well as Iran’s nuclear program and recent violence in Iraq and Yemen.
‘HOW CAN WE BE OPTIMISTIC?’
Clinton said she was pleased with what she heard from the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members as well as officials from Egypt, Iraq and Jordan but declined to say whether they might support the start of talks without a settlement freeze.
The GCC is comprised of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
“We had a very positive and productive conversation,” Clinton told Reuters. “I was pleased by the comments that the countries made, but I’m not going to go any further than that because we are still in the midst of trying to move toward the … commencement of negotiations.”
Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, in remarks prepared for delivery at the U.N. General Assembly on Saturday, struck a pessimistic note.
“Unfortunately, no real results or notable signs of progress have been achieved in spite of the commendable endeavors of the United States of America (and) the evident personal desire of President Barack Obama and his team to further the peace process,” he said.
“If all of this international concern, all this international consensus and all these international endeavors have so far failed to induce Israel to honor the commitments to which it previously bound itself under the Road Map, how can we be optimistic?” he added.
Israel committed to freeze all settlement activity under the 2003 U.S.-backed “Road Map” peace plan.
Speaking before the meeting, Feltman said Clinton would urge Arab states to make normalization gestures but also to give Abbas political support to resume negotiations quickly even if the package of steps was not in place.
Abbas has insisted that Israel halt settlement building in the occupied territories including East Jerusalem — which Netanyahu’s government has resisted.
“We would hope that … the Arab leaders would provide their own support to President Abbas in terms of entering into negotiations now, serious negotiations now,” Feltman said, adding that the Palestinians also needed economic aid.
A State Department spokesman declined comment on whether Clinton specifically made the points in her meeting.
“Secretary Clinton called on all to support the relaunch of negotiations,” said a senior U.S. official, giving no details.
(Additional reporting by Haitham Haddadin at the United Nations; Editing by Paul Simao)