State Department Hosts Formal Mideast Peace Talks

Israeli and Palestinian negotiating teams are getting down to work at the State Department Thursday — with low expectations and amid more violence in the West Bank. President Obama hosted a dinner Wednesday night for the visiting Israeli and Palestinian leaders and other would-be peacemakers. The President challenged them to walk the path of peace.

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President Obama got Arab and Israeli leaders to coexist at dinner last night. He hosted them at the White House. The question today is whether they can find a formula to coexist in the Middle East.

Israelis and Palestinians begin work at the State Department here in Washington. Their stated goal is to produce a peace deal within a year. Even as they talk, the news from the region suggests the challenges they face.

We start in Washington with NPR's Michele Kelemen.

MICHELE KELEMEN: President Obama seems determined to defy the skeptics. He says the U.S. cant impose a peace agreement or want it more than the parties. But he says his administration will not waver as it tries to help Israelis and Palestinians reach a two-state solution.

President BARACK OBAMA: The goal is a settlement, negotiated between the parties, that ends the occupation which began in 1967 and results in the emergence of an independent, democratic and viable Palestinian state, living side by side in peace and security with a Jewish state of Israel and its other neighbors. That's the vision we are pursuing.

KELEMEN: Before a working White House dinner, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas had their own private meetings with President Obama, and both had a chance to speak publicly about what they are expecting from this latest peace process. High on Netanyahus agenda is the issue of security.

Prime Minister BENJAMIN NETANYAHU (Israel): We want the skyline of the West Bank to be dominated by apartment towers, not missiles. We want the roads of the West Bank to flow with commerce, not terrorists.

KELEMEN: He condemned the killing of four Israelis near Hebron on the eve of the White House summit. Still, Netanyahu said this wouldnt stop him from pursuing peace. He says he didnt come to Washington looking for excuses but to find solutions.

Prime Minister NETANYAHU: President Abbas, you are my partner in peace. And it is up to us, with the help of our friends, to conclude the agonizing conflict between our peoples and to afford them a new beginning.

KELEMEN: The Palestinian Authority president also condemned the violence in the West Bank. But his focus now is on a partial moratorium on Jewish settlement building there that's soon to expire. Abbas urged Israel to freeze all settlement construction on land that he hopes will be part of a future Palestinian state, and through an interpreter the Palestinian leader said he would work hard to reach a negotiated settlement.

President MAHMOUD ABBAS: (Through translator) We will spare no effort and will work diligently and tirelessly to ensure that these negotiations achieve their goals and objectives in dealing with all of the issues: Jerusalem, refugees, settlements, borders, security, water, as well as the release of all our prisoners.

KELEMEN: The dinner last night also included Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordans King Abdullah. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair was also there as a representative of whats known as the Quartet - the U.S., U.N., European Union and Russia. President Obama made clear that the Israelis and Palestinians need international support and need to, quote, "seize this opportunity."

President OBAMA: Neither success nor failure is inevitable. But this much we know: If we do not make the attempt, then failure is guaranteed. If both sides do not commit to these talks in earnest, then the longstanding conflict will only continue to fester and consume another generation. And this we simply cannot allow.

KELEMEN: Today, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is in the spotlight, as the formal talks begin at the State Department. The Israelis and Palestinians are expected to lay out how they will proceed now that theyve both set the goal of reaching a deal within a year.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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