Obama Sees Opportunity In Mideast Talks

President Obama with Prime Minister Netanyahu i i

hide captionPresident Obama denounces an attack on Israeli settlers as he stands beside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House. Netanyahu said the attack will not derail direct peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

Ron Sachs/Getty Images
President Obama with Prime Minister Netanyahu

President Obama denounces an attack on Israeli settlers as he stands beside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House. Netanyahu said the attack will not derail direct peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

Ron Sachs/Getty Images

President Obama urged Israeli and Palestinian leaders Wednesday to seize a "moment of opportunity" for Mideast peace.

"I am hopeful, cautiously hopeful, but hopeful," Obama said with the leaders of Jordan, Egypt, Israel and the Palestinians beside him in the crowded East Room of the White House. Earlier Obama had met with each individually, and they gathered afterward for dinner.

The mood appeared cordial as the leaders commenced the talks aimed at creating a sovereign Palestinian state beside a secure Israel.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shook hands warmly and thanked Obama for pressing for the renewed talks despite such seemingly intractable differences as Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank.

"Do we have the wisdom and the courage to walk the path of peace?" Obama asked.

In turn, each of the leaders answered positively but with qualifications. And they spoke hopefully of chances for a breakthrough within the one-year timeframe prescribed by Obama.

Netanyahu said his nation desires a lasting peace, not an interlude between wars. He called Abbas "my partner in peace," and said, "Everybody loses if there is no peace."

Abbas urged Israel to freeze settlement construction in areas the Palestinians want as part of their new state, and to end its blockade of Gaza, which is controlled by the militant Hamas movement. The settlements issue is a central obstacle to achieving a permanent peace.

Israeli settlers carry bodies to burial i i

hide captionMourners carry the bodies of two of the four Israeli settlers killed Tuesday by Hamas gunmen in the West Bank.

Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images
Israeli settlers carry bodies to burial

Mourners carry the bodies of two of the four Israeli settlers killed Tuesday by Hamas gunmen in the West Bank.

Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images

"We will spare no effort and we will work diligently and tirelessly to ensure these negotiations achieve their cause," Abbas said, as translated into English.

Urging them on, Obama said, "This moment of opportunity may not soon come again."

Direct talks between the two leaders are set to begin Thursday, presided over by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. They are the first face-to-face negotiations between the two sides in 20 months.

The president laid out the goal that his administration has said can be achieved in one year of serious talks: "a two-state solution that ends the conflict and ensures the rights and security of both Israelis and Palestinians."

Obama sought the backing of two neighboring countries for the talks. The working dinner at the White House included Jordan's King Abdullah II and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, as well as Clinton and former Sen. George Mitchell, the president's special Mideast peace envoy.

Clinton will preside over the direct talks between Abbas and Netanyahu on Thursday.

Earlier Wednesday, Obama announced the opening of talks with a condemnation of fresh bloodshed in the West Bank.

Standing beside Netanyahu at the White House, Obama denounced the murders of four Israeli settlers in the Palestinian-controlled territory. The Palestinian militant group Hamas has claimed responsibility for the attack, which underlined some of the thorniest issues hindering a peace agreement.

Those issues include the ability of the Palestinian Authority to prevent such attacks and the question of Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

After meeting privately with Netanyahu, the president spoke out against Tuesday's attack, saying the United States will push back against "these kinds of terrorist attacks," adding "so the message should go out to Hamas and everyone else who is taking credit for these heinous crimes that this is not going to stop us."

Netanyahu said the killings would not derail his talks with Abbas. He urged Israeli settlers to show restraint after the killings and not retaliate against Palestinians in the area.

A Murderous Message

For their part, Palestinian authorities rounded up some 250 people who they said were associated with Hamas in the West Bank. Hamas leaders based in Gaza said the attack was a message to Israel, designed to show that the militant group has the power to disrupt Israeli plans.

The Associated Press quoted an anonymous Hamas official as saying the attack was also designed to show that Palestinian leader Abbas "cannot protect the security of the Israelis and the settlers."

The attackers killed two men and two women near the entrance to Kiryat Arba, a settlement that is a suburb of the West Bank city of Hebron. Officials say two of the victims were a couple who left a family of six children.

The Palestinian Authority's ability to protect Israelis in the West Bank is key to the current negotiations, because Netanyahu has said that Israeli security will be his main priority.

The attack "shows the power of the few and determined to not only kill people, but to wreak havoc and undermine confidence in the peace talks," says Aaron David Miller, a Middle East scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center.

"Netayahu is saying [to Abbas] 'I need you to control and silence all the guns in Palestine.' This is a demonstration of the fact that Abbas can't do that," says Miller.

The Future of Settlements

The fact that the attack targeted settlers brings up another key element in the dispute: Jewish settlements. A 10-month moratorium on building new housing in the settlements is set to expire on Sept. 26.

Abbas has said there's no point in discussing the borders of a future Palestinian state if Israel resumes expanding settlements in an effort to shift the boundaries. He said recently that he would walk out of any talks if Israel doesn't extend the freeze.

Analysts say the intransigence of the Israeli and Palestinian positions means the United States is going to have to take a very strong and direct role in moving the parties toward a settlement.

"The ball is in the Obama administration's court," says Daniel Levy, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. Levy, a former Israeli official, says the Israeli and Palestinian leaders won't act on their own, because of domestic political pressures.

Includes material from The Associated Press

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