By Ben Feller, AP
WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama on Sunday hailed the prospect of a new settlement freeze in the disputed West Bank as a promising step toward peace, urging Israelis and Palestinians to get back into serious negotiations quickly.
An upbeat president also pledged to return to the basic principles that drove his thinking when he first came to the White House, including sticking to a more bipartisan tone and better explaining his decisions to the American people. He spoke of moving from an “obsessive focus” on policy and making changes to his approach after a humbling midterm election.
“The fact that we are out of crisis — although still obviously in a difficult time — I think will give me the capacity,” Obama told reporters aboard Air Force One at the end of long Asia trip.
On the Mideast, Washington’s new proposal for reviving peace talks includes a 90-day ban on housing starts in West Bank settlements — but not in east Jerusalem, the Palestinians’ hoped-for capital. The goal is to give the two sides a three-month period to shape borders of side-by-side states, a daunting, elusive mission.
Obama commended Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for making a “very constructive step” toward creating an environment for peace. “I think it’s a signal that he’s serious,” Obama said.
U.S. officials said Netanyahu told the administration that he supports the plan and will try to win approval from his Cabinet. Obama said he hopes the Israeli leader and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will resume negotiations soon.
A previous 10-month moratorium in the West Bank expired Sept. 26, and talks have stalled, casting doubt about the notion of a peace deal within a year’s time, as Obama has sought. Just a few days ago, during a stop in Indonesia, Obama acknowledged he was worried about the peace process and urged both sides to show more effort.
Looking rested after two legs of an all-night flight from Asia, Obama on Sunday made an unannounced visit to the press cabin of Air Force One just before the plane landed at Andrews Air Force Base in Washington.
The president sounded optimistic about getting Senate ratification of a new U.S.-Russia nuclear arms treaty during the postelection session of Congress, during which lawmakers try to push through matters before a new Congress convenes.
The White House is working furiously to round up the votes, warning that a failure would deeply undermine U.S.-Russia relations. As a way to rally support, the administration is proposing extra billions of dollars to modernize the existing nuclear arsenal. That’s a priority of Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., who is seen as the key to rounding up Republican support for ratification.
“Actually, I feel pretty good about our prospects,” Obama said.
Obama said Congress should also reach a deal on extending certain George W. Bush-era tax cuts, soon due to expire, so that the middle class does not get a tax hike in the new year. Republicans are pushing for an extension of tax cuts for wealthier Americans, too, and Obama is probably going to have reach at least a temporary deal on that.
Later this week the president will hold a strategy session with Republican and Democratic leaders in the House and Senate. He joked of his coming week, “I’m sure it’ll be very relaxing.”
Obama sought to raise the expectations on Republicans, who won convincingly in the midterm elections.
“They’re still flush with victory, having run a strategy that was all about saying no,” he said. “But I am very confident that the American people were not issuing a mandate for gridlock.”
The president said one lasting impression of his trip is that the nations of southeast Asia are on the move economically, and that while the U.S. can confidently compete, “we are going to have to step up our game.”