JERUSALEM (AP) — A senior Palestinian official urged President Barack Obama on Thursday to help restart Israeli-Palestinian talks, despite a White House statement that the U.S. leader will not pursue any new peace initiatives on his upcoming trip to the region.
Jibril Rajoub, a former Palestinian security chief and prominent West Bank official, told Israel's Army Radio that Washington is the only one that can "build a bridge of trust" between the two sides.
"If there is anyone who can press the Israelis to change their attitude, it's the American president," said Rajoub, in a rare interview in Hebrew to the Army radio station. "I see his visit as important. We all need it. I hope something will come of it."
Peace talks between the two sides collapsed in 2008. Palestinians refuse to negotiate until Israel stops building settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, areas they want for a future state. Israel has refused to halt settlement construction, saying there should be no preconditions for talks.
Obama sought to restart peace negotiations in 2011, but the effort collapsed within weeks.
Previous visits to the region by U.S. presidents have raised high expectations for U.S.-brokered peace deals. The White House tried to lower those expectations Wednesday, emphasizing that the president's focus will be to turn a new leaf with his Israeli counterpart, with whom he had frosty relations during his first administration.
U.S. officials said Obama will meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leaders and will stress the importance of getting the parties back to the negotiating table, but the Obama administration does not see the immediate revival of the peace process as a realistic prospect.
"That is not the purpose of this visit," White House spokesman Jay Carney said Wednesday. The White House has not announced a date, but Israeli media report Obama will arrive March 20 for a three-day visit.
Rajoub, the Palestinian official, sought to capitalize on the opportunity of Obama's planned visit, saying the window of opportunity for brokering a peace deal may be closing.
He said that all Palestinian factions, including the Islamist militant Hamas which is at odds with the Fatah-led Palestinian government in the West Bank, are ready to support a two-state solution that would see Israel withdrawing from territories it captured in the 1967 Mideast war and the creation of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.
"Israelis have a right to live in security in peace within the 1967 borders," Rajoub said. "We are ready tomorrow to go to negotiations on the basis of two states for two peoples."
Outgoing Israeli deputy foreign minister Danny Ayalon said there may be more hope for bringing the sides to the negotiating table following Israel's recent election, in which Netanyahu won another term.
Netanyahu is building a new coalition now, and he has signaled that he seeks to include centrist parties in his government — parties which have vowed to partner with Netanyahu only if he is committed to restarting Israeli-Palestinian talks.
"The next government may have more wiggle room because of the coalition," Ayalon said.
Newly sworn in Secretary of State John Kerry is expected to visit Israel, the Palestinian territories and other countries in the region this month to prepare for Obama's trip. Kerry also spoke with Netanyahu and Abbas over the weekend to reaffirm the U.S. commitment to the peace process.