Obama to host Middle East talks


US president Barack Obama will hold a joint meeting with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and palestinian  President Mahmoud Abbas this week in an attempt to try to restart peace talks between the two sides, the White House said.

The meeting - the first between the three men - will be held in New York on Tuesday, where the UN General Assembly takes place next week.

Mr Obama will meet with each leader separately before convening a joint session with them, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said in statement last night.

Mr Netanyahu's office said in a statement the Israeli leader had pushed forward his departure for New York to tomorrow from Wednesday for the purpose of meeting with Mr Obama and Mr Abbas.

"Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomes the United States' invitation for talks with President Barack Obama and for a trilateral meeting with President Obama and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas," the statement said.

A senior Netanyahu aide added, "The meeting will be held without preconditions, as the prime minister had always wanted."

The White House had been coy on Friday about the chances of a sit-down between the three parties. Officials said the event illustrated the president's personal commitment to peace in the region.

US special envoy George Mitchell was in the region last week in the latest round of shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East. However, he left with little to show for his efforts as Israel and the Palestinians dug in to opposing positions on Jewish settlements.

Officials from both sides, while reluctant to spurn President Obama's invitation for a meeting, had acknowledged that a photograph and handshake at the United Nations would not be enough to relaunch the peace process without substantial shifts in negotiating positions.

Mr Gibbs said the meeting would continue US efforts to "lay the groundwork for the relaunch of negotiations and to create a positive context for those negotiations so that they can succeed."

Mr Mitchell, a former senator credited with helping bring peace to Northern Ireland, praised president Obama for stepping in.

"It is another sign of the president's deep commitment to comprehensive peace that he wants to personally engage at this juncture," Mitchell said in the White House statement.

He said the United States was continuing efforts to "encourage all sides to take responsibility for peace and to create a positive context for the resumption of negotiations."

A US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said no announcement was expected to come out of the meeting but he noted the significance of the gesture less than a year after a war in Gaza and several months after the formation of Netanyahu's government in Israel.

"These three leaders are going to sit down in the same room and continue to narrow the gaps," the official said.

The meeting comes during a sour spell in Israeli-US relations as Mr Netanyahu, in power since March at the head of a right-wing coalition sceptical of Palestinian intentions, defies Mr Obama's demand that he curb settlement building.

Palestinians, who say expanding settlements in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem will deny them a viable state, want a full halt to building until a final peace, which might involve Israel keeping some settlements in a land swap.

Mr Netanyahu has offered to freeze building in the West Bank for nine months, Israeli officials have said.

Palestinians reject Mr Netanyahu's insistence on excluding East Jerusalem from any freeze.