WASHINGTON - Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas met President Barack Obama on Thursday to urge stronger U.S. pressure on Israel to halt settlement building even as the Jewish state rebuffed Washington's latest appeal.
Seeking to revive peacemaking, Obama held talks with Abbas at the White House 10 days after hosting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who remains at odds with Israel's superpower ally over Jewish settlements and Palestinian statehood.
Abbas planned to make his case for a tougher U.S. approach toward Netanyahu, who heads a new right-leaning Israeli government with pro-settler parties at its core.
Obama's secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, offered support on Wednesday for the Palestinian demand that Netanyahu impose a total freeze on settlement construction in the occupied West Bank.
She said Obama would press the point that all settlement activity must stop, including the natural growth of existing enclaves that Netanyahu has vowed to continue.
Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev responded by reasserting Netanyahu's intention to allow some further construction to accommodate the expansion of settler families.
Israel ... will abide by its commitments not to build new settlements and to dismantle unauthorized outposts, he said in Jerusalem. But, as for existing settlements, he said normal life must be allowed to continue in these communities.
Even as policy differences have exposed a rare U.S.-Israeli rift, it remains unclear how hard Obama is willing to push the Jewish state to make concessions when his administration has yet to complete its Middle East strategy.
Obama, who has reaffirmed U.S. support for a two-state solution, sees engagement in Palestinian-Israeli peacemaking as crucial to repairing America's image in the Muslim world and drawing moderate Arab states into a united front against Iran.
Netanyahu's refusal to embrace the goal of Palestinian statehood, long the cornerstone of U.S. Middle East policy, has added a new obstacle to Obama's diplomatic efforts.
SHORE UP ABBAS
In Thursday's talks, Obama was hoping to shore up Abbas, a moderate backed by the West but politically weak with rival Hamas Islamists controlling the Gaza Strip.
On the eve of Abbas's visit, Netanyahu said in Jerusalem that the Palestinians must also be pressed to meet their commitments, including cracking down on militants, under a 2003 peace road map each side has accused the other of ignoring.
Palestinians contend that expansion of settlements, deemed illegal by the World Court, is aimed at denying them a viable state.
Abbas's visit could be a preview of what Obama can expect next week when he sees Saudi King Abdullah in Riyadh and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo and then delivers a speech to the Muslim world.
Muslims will be looking for signs of how Obama will tackle the Arab-Israeli standoff. His predecessor, George W. Bush, was criticized for neglecting the decades-old conflict and most Muslims believed his policies were biased in favor of Israel.
What the White House has made clear is that Obama has no plan to use his June 4 speech in Egypt to unveil a new peace initiative, despite widespread speculation that he will do so.
But Obama has signaled that he hopes to work toward a broader peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors.
For now, the prospects for progress look dim.
In Washington last week, Netanyahu did not budge from his resistance to accepting a two-state solution, a principle supported by his centrist predecessor, Ehud Olmert.
Despite Obama's insistence that settlements have to be stopped, Netanyahu held firm. The U.S.-sponsored road map requires Israel to freeze settlement activity. Continued resistance could cause friction in generally smooth ties between Israel and its staunchest ally.
Abbas has ruled out restarting peace talks until Israel commits to Palestinian statehood and a settlement freeze.
Close to half a million Jews now live in the West Bank and Arab East Jerusalem, which were captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war.