WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama pressed visiting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas Monday to help break the logjam to elusive Mideast peace talks, acknowledging that with a deadline fast approaching, the task ahead is "very hard, it's very challenging."
"We're going to have to take some tough political decisions and risks if we're to move it forward," Obama said at the start of his Oval Office meeting with the Palestinian leader. "My hope is that we can continue to see progress in the coming days and weeks."
The White House meeting marked a renewed foray into a diplomatic minefield that the president has mostly left up to his secretary of state, John Kerry.
With just weeks left before a U.S.-imposed April deadline for completing a framework for peace talks, Obama is inserting himself in the process with fresh vigor, hoping that presidential pressure might salvage the talks despite a growing sense of pessimism on both sides. Just two weeks ago, Obama held a similar meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in which he urged Israel to make the "tough decisions" needed to move forward.
Obama said everyone understands what the contours of a Mideast peace deal would look like — a Palestinian state based on territory captured by Israel in 1967 with "mutually agreed upon swaps" that ensure the security of Israel and a sovereign state for Palestinians.
He praised Abbas as a leader who "has consistently renounced violence, has consistently sought a diplomatic and peaceful solution that allows for two states, side by side in peace and security -- a state that allows for the dignity and sovereignty of the Palestinian people and a state that allows for Israelis to feel secure and at peace with their neighbors."
For his part, Abbas stressed the Palestinian position for a state based "on the 1967 borders so that the Palestinians can have their own independent state with east Jerusalem as its capital."
Palestinians are seeking an independent state in the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip — lands Israel captured in 1967 -- with minor land swaps. Netanyahu rejects a return to Israel's pre-1967 borders, and Jewish settlements in areas Palestinians claim for their future state have bred deep skepticism among Palestinians.
Abbas, speaking in Arabic that was translated, made special note of an agreement brokered by Kerry for Israel to release a fourth round of prisoners.
"We are hopeful that the fourth batch will be released by the 29th of March because this would give a very solid impression" that Israel is serious about the peace process,
The Obama administration is seeking a framework to guide negotiations on a permanent solution to the age-old conflict. The framework aims to address the core issues in the dispute, including borders between Israel and a future Palestine, the fate of Palestinian refugees and the status of the holy city of Jerusalem.
One of those core issues — Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state — has emerged as a particular flashpoint in recent days, despite initial pledges by all sides to keep the negotiations private. During Netanyahu's U.S. visit, he revved up pro-Israel advocates by insisting the Palestinians relent. "No excuses, no delays, it's time," he said.
For Abbas, formally recognizing a Jewish state could be politically explosive, as Palestinians argue it would undermine the rights of refugees who fled during Israel's formation as well as the rights of Israel's own Arab minority
Without acknowledging Israel as a Jewish state, Abbas on Monday made a special note that Palestinians have since 1988 recognized the legitimacy of Israel "and in 1993 we recognized the state of Israel."
Aaron David Miller, a Mideast peace negotiator under presidents of both parties, said both Abbas and Netanyahu have an incentive to stick with the talks — if only to avoid bearing the blame if the effort falters.
"Nobody wants to admit the emperor has no clothes. Nobody wants the talks to collapse," Miller said. "Kerry may or may not end up with a piece of paper, but he has skillfully created an investment trap in which both Abbas and Netanyahu will agree to continue negotiations."
In the Oval Office meeting, Obama was to tell Abbas that compromise toward a final agreement will ultimately benefit the Palestinians, said a senior administration official, who wasn't authorized to comment by name and demanded anonymity. Obama was also to make the case that direct talks with Israel are the only path to a sovereign Palestinian state.
In several cities across the West Bank, hundreds of Abbas supporters staged rallies calling for him to stand up to American pressure in the meeting with Obama. Demonstrators held up posters of Abbas, pounded drums and urged him to resist calls to make concessions, especially on the issue of recognizing Israel as a Jewish state.
Members of Israel's hard-line government have questioned Abbas' readiness to make peace. But ahead of Monday's meeting, Abbas received a boost of support from Israeli President Shimon Peres, who said: "We have to continue to work with the Palestinian Authority and President Abbas" and called him "a man of principles."