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With Modest Aims, Obama To Kick Off Mideast Talks

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Mayflower Hotel on Tuesday on the eve of Mideast peace talks in Washington, D.C. The United States is hosting leaders from Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Egypt and Jordan in hopes of starting a new round of direct peace talks. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images hide caption

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Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Mayflower Hotel on Tuesday on the eve of Mideast peace talks in Washington, D.C. The United States is hosting leaders from Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Egypt and Jordan in hopes of starting a new round of direct peace talks.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

After months of shuttle diplomacy, the Obama administration is set to plunge into a new round of Mideast peacemaking, bringing Israeli and Palestinian leaders together for face-to-face talks for the first time in nearly two years.

But already low expectations for the talks were jolted even before they began when a Palestinian gunman opened fire on an Israeli vehicle traveling in the West Bank, killing four passengers in an attack claimed by the militant Hamas movement. Israeli officials said the shooting was an attempt to sabotage the discussions.

With U.S. officials allowing that success in Thursday's negotiations may be defined simply as an agreement to meet again, President Obama was getting ready to host Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Wednesday.

The goal is to formalize a peace agreement in a year's time that will lead to the creation of a Palestinian state. But with the two sides far apart on all the key issues, the going is expected to be slow and fraught with difficulties.

"We've gone 20 months without ... direct negotiations," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said. "We are not going to solve everything on Thursday."

Skepticism At Talks

With Wednesday's meeting, Obama joins every U.S. administration for the past two decades that has tried its hand at Arab-Israeli peace.

There is much skepticism given the history of past attempts. The settings have varied over the years, and there were plenty of ups and downs: from President Carter's peace deal between Israel and Egypt to Israeli-Palestinian negotiations that came close — but ultimately failed — under President Clinton.

By the time President George W.Bush left office in 2009, there was still no deal and lots of skepticism, with Palestinians divided and Israel blockading the Gaza Strip.

Scott Lasensky, a senior research associate in the Center for Conflict Analysis and Prevention at the U.S. Institute of Peace, has been interviewing past U.S. negotiators and says one problem is that there are competing narratives of what went wrong. He says it will be pivotal for the Obama administration to draw the right lessons and plan for difficult talks on the core issues: borders, security, the future of Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees.

"In the two moments in the last 10 or 12 years when the U.S. has been in a negotiation where the big issues were being discussed, the core issues, we were caught flat-footed," Lasensky said. "We didn't have carefully thought out positions on the core issues."

Lasensky says the Clinton administration had to scramble at the last minute while the Bush administration was always leery of putting U.S. ideas on the table. He says this administration, unlike the previous two, is at least starting its Middle East peace effort earlier.

"The U.S. has set up a negotiation, where we've given the parties the timeline where we've said the focus should be the core issues and we know that they can't come up with agreements on their own," he said. "They can't actually get to a final deal because every time they get close there still are gaps. So we should have ideas, parameters, bridging proposals ready."

A Violent Reminder

But Tuesday's deadly shooting near the town of Hebron was a reminder of the fragility of the situation. Israel promised a tough response but said the attack would not change this week's summit. In a statement, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad's office said the attack was aimed at undermining his government's effort to build international support for "the Palestinian position and ending the [Israeli] occupation."

Ahead of Thursday's sessions, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the administration's Mideast peace envoy, George Mitchell, met Tuesday with Abbas and Netanyahu as well as the foreign ministers of Egypt and Jordan and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the representative of the "Quartet" of Mideast peacemakers.

Crowley said Clinton's talks were intended to clarify where the parties stand as they head into the talks, which the administration wants to mark "the reinvigoration of intensive process."

"We want to see not just a successful relaunch tomorrow [Wednesday] but an understanding that, going forward, the leaders will meet on a regular basis," he said.

Arab Role

On Wednesday, Abbas and Netanyahu will meet separately with Obama. Then, joined by Jordan's King Abdullah and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, they will attend a White House dinner intended to set the stage for the launch of formal talks a day later at the State Department. Jordan and Egypt are the only two Arab nations that have peace deals with Israel.

But former Jordanian Foreign Minister Marwan Muasher, now with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says the Arab world should have a bigger role. He says that was one of the problems that hurt President Clinton's efforts to persuade Yasser Arafat to sign a deal in 2000.

"Arafat was asked to give some very painful compromises that he did not feel had Arab cover," Muasher said. "He did not want to sign and be called a traitor the next day."

Muasher also says the incremental approach to peace has run its course, and he blames that on Jewish settlement building on land that is supposed to be part of a future Palestinian state.

"It has been 17 years; the number of settlers in the West Bank and Jerusalem has doubled since the Oslo agreement in '93; so there is this belief on the Arab side that any further settlement activity is just buying time for Israel to create more facts on the ground," he said.

Another thing the U.S. will have to overcome, says Robert Danin of the Council on Foreign Relations, is general peace process fatigue.

"I think both peoples really want it. But both peoples are skeptical that it can be achieved," he said. "They need hope, and their leaders aren't providing them that. And that's where I think the U.S. can play a very important role."

But Danin and others warn that there is a key element that is lacking: a sense of urgency from Israeli and Palestinian leaders to make needed compromises.

Major Obstacles

One major immediate challenge will be the Palestinians' demand that Israel extend a 10-month freeze on settlement construction in the West Bank that expires on Sept. 26.

Netanyahu, who faces pressure from his right-wing Likud party and hawkish coalition partners to resume building inside West Bank settlements when the freeze ends, has made no such pledge. And Palestinian officials have warned that without one, the talks in Washington may be nothing more than a two-day excursion to the U.S. capital.

Beyond the settlements, Israel and the Palestinians face numerous hurdles on resolving the other issues of contention, notably the borders of a future Palestinian state, the political status of Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees.

At the same time, internal Palestinian divisions that have led to a split between Abbas and his West Bank-based administration and Hamas, which controls Gaza, will complicate the talks. Hamas is not part of the negotiations and has said the talks will be futile.

American officials are hopeful they can at least get the two sides to agree to a second round, likely to be held in the second week of September in Egypt. That could be followed by another meeting that involves Obama, Netanyahu and Abbas on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly near the end of the month, they said.

Netanyahu has said he would like to meet regularly with Abbas, perhaps every two weeks, as lower-level talks expected to convene in working groups continue. During that period, Clinton and Mitchell would be available to offer suggestions to help the parties overcome obstacles they encounter, the officials said.

Indeed, Abbas told reporters accompanying him to Washington on Tuesday that he hopes for an active U.S. role with the administration presenting "bridging proposals" to close gaps.

But that formula has failed in the past, notably when former President Clinton was unable to get the two sides to agree to a peace deal at Camp David in 2000, and then again when former President Bush tried his hand at resolving the conflict starting with the Annapolis conference in 2007.

Netanyahu has refused to pick up where the Annapolis negotiations left off in December 2008 between Abbas and then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who was more moderate than Netanyahu.

Before leaving for Washington, Netanyahu told his Likud party that he would seek "real arrangements on the ground" that ensure the security of Israelis.

NPR's Michele Kelemen contributed to this report, which also includes material from The Associated Press