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Pundits ponder pause in peace process -

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ELEANOR HALL: The US President Barack Obama held talks with the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin
Netanyahu at the White House today.

But it was a low key affair with some suggesting the President was deliberately snubbing the
Israeli leader.

The US administration's attempts to restart Middle East peace negotiations have faltered recently
and the announcement by the head of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, that he won't contest
the next elections is yet another blow.

In Washington, John Shovelan reports.

JOHN SHOVELAN: The Israeli Prime Minister was made to wait before President Obama agreed to his
request for a meeting.

The Prime Minister had landed in Washington before he was told it would proceed.

The Israeli Haaretz Daily wrote "The White House wanted Netanyahu to sweat before being granted an
audience with the President, and wanted everyone to see him perspire."

But Prime Minister Netanyahu still only got the tradesman's entrance at the White House.

The meeting was behind closed doors and unlike most meetings with world leaders this didn't have
any cameras present.

When the White House wants to sell an idea, mutual initiative, relationship or achievement, the
President and the visiting leader will make a statement sitting opposite each other in the Oval
Office.

But the night time meeting was scheduled after news deadlines and without fanfare.

There were no reporters.

The White House spokesman, Robert Gibbs, however said nothing should be read into the unusual
atmospherics that had preceded the meeting.

ROBERT GIBBS: I think it is pretty safe to assume that the President thinks no less of the
importance of the Middle East peace process simply by subtracting one television camera.

JOHN SHOVELAN: In the New York Times Thomas Friedman wrote over the weekend "the only thing driving
the peace process today is inertia and diplomatic habit. It is now more of a callisthenic, like
weight-lifting or sit-ups, something diplomats do to stay in shape, but not because they believe
anything is going to happen."

Ties between the Israeli Government of Prime Minister Netanyahu and the Obama administration are
strained over the Israeli Government's refusal to freeze settlements in the occupied West Bank - a
key condition of the Palestinian Authority before it will resume negotiating.

ROBERT GIBBS: The policy of the United States Government for many decades has been no more
settlements. That is not something that is new to this administration but it is not a policy
difference in this administration than in previous administrations.

JOHN SHOVELAN: The White House meeting came at a particularly delicate time because just over a
week ago Secretary of State Hillary Clinton praised the Israeli Government's offer of reduced
settlement activity.

Mrs Clinton at the time called the offer "unprecedented" which triggered Palestinian and Arab
anger.

Her statement was seen as a clear break of US support for the Palestinian position of a total
freeze.

Palestinians say the shift in policy has killed any hope of reviving negotiations.

But speaking in Washington Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu urged the Palestinians to drop their
preconditions and to begin negotiating now.

BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: And no Israeli Government has been so willing to restrain settlement activities
as part of an effort to relaunch peace talks. So I say today to Mahmoud Abbas, the leader of the
Palestinian Authority, let us seize the moment to reach a historic agreement. Let us begin talks
immediately.

JOHN SHOVELAN: No matter how low key the White House meeting was, it is still likely to anger
Palestinians.

Moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has announced he won't be standing for re-election.

Israeli President Shimon Peres has asked Mr Abbas to reconsider but Prime Minister Netanyahu has
made no such appeal.

Some say the Palestinian leader's decision was because he was disappointed with the weaker US stand
on Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

John Shovelan, Washington.