Mideast Leaders Commit To New Peace Process

Israeli and Palestinian leaders committed themselves to a new peace process on Thursday. Middle East envoy George Mitchell says he and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will go to the region later this month for the next round of peace talks. He says Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas plan to meet every two weeks and set out a framework, which he described as the "fundamental compromises" needed for a final peace deal.

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At the State Department today, Israeli and Palestinian leaders committed themselves to a new peace process and an ambitious goal to reach a deal within a year. Middle East envoy George Mitchell says the next round of talks will take place in mid-September. He also pledged that he and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will both attend and that the U.S. will be a persistent partner.

NPR's Michele Kelemen reports on the many diplomatic challenges that lie ahead.

MICHELE KELEMEN: There was a sense of deja vu at the State Department today. Even Secretary Clinton joked that there were lots of familiar faces on the negotiating teams - people she's known since her husband tried his hand at Middle East peace.

Secretary HILLARY CLINTON (State Department): We've been here before, and we know how difficult the road ahead will be.

KELEMEN: She says she understands why there is so much skepticism given the history of past peace efforts, but Secretary Clinton encouraged the negotiators to put all that aside.

Sec. CLINTON: You have returned because you have seen the cost of continued conflict. The core issues at the center of these negotiations - territory, security, Jerusalem, refugees, settlements and others -will get no easier if we wait.

KELEMEN: Middle East envoy George Mitchell says he and Secretary Clinton will join the Israeli and Palestinian leaders again on September 14th and 15th, and then the two sides will meet every two weeks. He says the goal is for them to resolve all the core issues, but they want to start with a so-called framework agreement.

Mr. GEORGE MITCHELL (U.S. Middle East Envoy): Its purpose is to establish the fundamental compromises necessary to enable the parties to then flesh out and complete a comprehensive agreement that will end the conflict and establish a lasting peace.

KELEMEN: Mitchell says there was a constructive and positive mood in the room today. Netanyahu and Abbas also met on their own - without U.S. mediators or their aides. The Israeli prime minister seems eager not to hand over the work to negotiators but to deal directly with Abbas and keep their deal-making out of public view.

Prime Minister BENJAMIN NETANYAHU (Israel): A true peace, a lasting peace, would be achieved only with mutual and painful concessions from both sides: from the Israeli side, from the Palestinian side, from my side and from your side.

KELEMEN: Amid the lofty rhetoric, there were reminders from the region of the troubles ahead. This week, Palestinian gunmen killed four Israelis in the West Bank and wounded two others in a separate incident.

Netanyahu says security is paramount. Abbas condemned the violence and said Palestinian security forces are just being built up and doing the best that can be expected.

Speaking through an interpreter, he also urged Israel to help create the right conditions for peace talks.

President MAHMOUD ABBAS (Palestinian Authority): (Through Translator) And we call on the Israeli government to move forward with its commitment to end all settlement activities and completely lift the embargo over the Gaza Strip.

KELEMEN: That's the Palestinian territory controlled by the militant group Hamas, which does not recognize Israel or the peace process. Hamas claimed responsibility for both attacks in the West Bank this week.

Despite this complicated backdrop, Secretary Clinton says the U.S. will be persistent. She's expected to play a big role not just in negotiations but also trying to drum up support among the Israeli and Palestinian publics.

Sec. CLINTON: Peace needs champions on every street corner and around every kitchen table. I understand very well the disappointments of the past. I share them.

KELEMEN: Middle East envoy Mitchell says this administration is learning from past failures and says one thing it will avoid is running out of time. Unlike his predecessors, President Obama got his administration working on this issue right from the start.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, The State Department.

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