Palestinian officials urge Obama to push for peace

RAMALLAH (AP) - Palestinian officials said on Thursday they hope President Barack Obama's upcoming visit to the region signals readiness to re-engage in Mideast peace efforts, but that negotiations can only resume if Washington is ready to get tough with Israel.

The Palestinians have long been anxious for the United States to revive serious talks with Israel. Their expectations were dampened following a White House statement that Mr Obama will not pursue any new peace initiatives on his visit, expected in late March.

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," Mr Rajoub, speaking Hebrew, said on Thursday. "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 in the two areas, which it captured in the 1967 Mideast war, saying there should be no preconditions for talks.

Under heavy U.S. pressure, Israel agreed to a temporary slowdown in building that helped Mr Obama to restart talks in 2010. But those negotiations collapsed after several weeks when the Israeli moratorium expired.

The Palestinians hope to establish an independent state in all territories captured by Israel in 1967, a position widely backed by the international community. Mr Netanyahu opposes a return to the 1967 lines.

Given the wide gaps between Mr Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, talks have remained at a standstill and the U.S. has remained largely on the sidelines.

The Palestinians believe they don't have enough common ground with Netanyahu for successful negotiations. They also fear the Israeli leader wants negotiations more to ease diplomatic pressure on Israel than to truly seek a deal. A final agreement would require difficult concessions, including a division of Jerusalem.

Israel, for its part, believes the Palestinians are to blame for refusing to return to the peace table without preconditions. Mr Netanyahu has said peace talks cannot be fruitful if the Palestinians continue to refuse to recognize Israel as the Jewish homeland.

Mr Abbas and his aides argue that negotiations can only resume if the U.S. engages fully and if Mr Obama is willing to spend political capital on pressuring Mr Netanyahu.