Image: Mideast leaders with Obama
Pete Souza  /  White House Photo
President Barack Obama holds a working dinner with, clockwise from left, King Abdullah II of Jordan, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, special envoy George Mitchell, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority, international envoy Tony Blair and President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, in the Old Family Dining Room of the White House on Wednesday.
updated 9/1/2010 9:40:05 PM ET 2010-09-02T01:40:05

Under the shadow of fresh violence, President Barack Obama solemnly convened the first direct Israeli-Palestinian talks in two years Wednesday, challenging Mideast leaders to seize a fleeting opportunity to deliver peace to a region haunted by decades of hostility.

"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 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. The two leaders begin face-to-face talks on Thursday at the State Department.

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"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.

"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.

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

While the talk at the White House was of peace, violence continued unabated in the region.

Obama assailed those responsible for the killings of four Israelis near the West Bank city of Hebron on Tuesday. The militant Hamas movement, which rejects Israel's right to exist and opposes peace talks, claimed responsibility.

On Wednesday, Israeli police reported still another attack, saying Palestinian militants wounded two Israelis driving in the West Bank. Two people were reported injured, their car riddled with bullets.

Video: Obama says Mideast peace moment 'must be seized' (on this page)

With the Israelis and Palestinians far apart on key issues, expectations for the Washington talks are low, yet the stakes are high.

Direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations broke off in December 2008, in the final weeks of the George W. Bush administration. The Obama administration spent its first 20 months in office coaxing the two sides back to the bargaining table.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a constant source of grievance and unrest in the Muslim world. The failure of past peace efforts has left both sides with rigid demands and public ambivalence about the value of a negotiated settlement.

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

Story: Quest for Mideast peace: Key players and issues

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

Also complicating the outlook are internal Palestinian divisions that have led to a split between Abbas' West Bank-based administration and Hamas, which is in control of Gaza. Hamas is not part of the negotiations and has asserted that talks will be futile.

Each of the leaders pledged to work diligently toward peace, but they also made plain that their own national interests must be satisfied.

"We do not seek a temporary respite between outbursts of terror," said Netanyahu. And he stressed the central importance of security assurances for the Jewish state as part of any land-for-peace agreement with the Palestinians.

"We left Lebanon, we got terror. We left Gaza, we got terror. We want to ensure that territory we concede will not be turned into a third Iranian-sponsored terror enclave aimed at the heart of Israel," Netanyahu said. Peace, he added, must "end the conflict between us once and for all."

In earlier remarks Wednesday, Obama emphasized the urgency of making peace, while dampening expectations for a sudden breakthrough. He was adamant that violence would not derail the process.

"There are going to be extremists and rejectionists who, rather than seeking peace, are going to be seeking destruction," he said. "The United States is going to be unwavering in its support of Israel's security. And we are going to push back against these kinds of terrorist attacks. And 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."

Said Jordan's King Abdullah II, who is supporting the talks along with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak: "Mr. President, we need your support as a mediator, honest broker and a partner. If hopes are disappointed again, the price of failure will be too high for all."

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Video: Obama: Peace moment 'must be seized'

  1. Transcript of: Obama: Peace moment 'must be seized'

    BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: Having turned now to another front, President Obama today became the latest president to take on the challenge of peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Negotiations under way. Our own Andrea Mitchell reports on whether or not the prospect is any different this time around. Andrea is at the State Department . Andrea , good evening.

    ANDREA MITCHELL reporting: Good evening, Brian . It is a big challenge. Today the president worked very hard to make sure that these talks didn't end before they even got under way because of new violence in the West Bank . Two Israelis shot and wounded today. Four Israeli settlers were killed yesterday. Today the president met separately with both sides in advance of the first direct talks in nearly two years to be held here at the State Department by the secretary of state tomorrow.

    President BARACK OBAMA: The United States will put our full weight behind this effort. We will be an active and sustained participant. We will support those who make difficult choices in pursuit of peace. But let me be very clear, ultimately the United States cannot impose a solution, and we cannot want it more than the parties themselves.

    MITCHELL: The most immediate challenge, the first hurdle, is planned by the Israelis to resume construction on Palestinian lands by the end of this month. But at least for now, the US is simply glad that both sides will be here face

    to face tomorrow. Brian: We'll be watching it all. Andrea Mitchell at the State Department tonight. Andrea , thanks.

    WILLIAMS:

Explainer: Quest for Mideast peace: An overview

  • Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is pressing ahead with a bid to seek United Nations recognition of a Palestinian state, despite a threatened U.S. veto. U.S. President Barack Obama says the path to peace in the Middle East is through resumption of direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians. The last round of such talks broke down in 2010 with the two sides far apart on key issues. Click on the links on the left to find out more.

    Sources: Reuters, The Associated Press, PBS, BBC, Council on Foreign Relations

  • Jerusalem

    Image: Jerusalem's Old City
    AP file

    Israel claims the entire city as its own undivided capital. Palestinians want East Jerusalem, which includes the Old City and its sites sacred to Muslims, Jews and Christians, to be the capital of a future Palestinian state.

    Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has endorsed the idea of a Palestinian state in principle, but says Jerusalem would remain Israel's "indivisible and eternal" capital. Israel's claim to the eastern part of Jerusalem is not recognized internationally.

  • West Bank

    Image: Israeli soldiers patrol the old city in the West Bank city of Hebron
    Abed Al Hashlamoun  /  EPA

    One of the disputed Israeli-occupied territories with areas of limited Palestinian self-government. The scores of Jewish settlements that dot the West Bank have long been a sore point in Mideast peacemaking. Israel began settling the territory soon after capturing it along with Gaza and East Jerusalem in the 1967 war.

    The Palestinians say the settlements, now home to roughly 500,000 Israelis interspersed among 2.6 million Palestinians, are gobbling up land they claim for a future state. The international community considers them illegal, and President Barack Obama has been an outspoken critic.

    The West Bank encompasses important cities such as East Jerusalem, Ramallah and Bethlehem. It would make up the bulk of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel, with precise borders to be drawn at the peace table. Expansion of Jewish housing makes those borders ever more complicated.

    A 10-month slowdown in West Bank housing construction by Israel expired in late September, and the Israeli government did not extend it despite international pleas to do so. That contributed to a breakdown in the last round of peace talks between the two sides.

  • Gaza Strip

    Image: Gaza Strip
    Kevin Frayer  /  AP

    This 25-mile-long by 7-mile-wide strip of land lying on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea is home to about 1.6 million Palestinians and is under firm control by the militant Hamas movement. Hamas is opposed not only to the peace talks but also to Israel's very existence.

    Gaza, which is also supposed to be part of a negotiated Palestinian state, has been the staging point for rocket attacks on Israel, which has responded with a economically crippling naval blockade of the territory.

    Most of Gaza's residents are from refugee families that fled or were expelled from the land that became Israel in 1948. Of these, most live in impoverished refugee camps to which the United Nations delivers basic services such as health and education.

    Israel began curtailing trade and travel in Gaza after Hamas won Palestinian parliamentary elections in 2006. Israel and many Western nations consider Hamas a terrorist organization. Hamas seized control of Gaza the following year, expelling members of the rival Fatah movement.

    Gaza's Islamist Hamas rulers say they will never give Israel what it most wants from a Middle East deal, which is recognition of the Jewish state and a legitimate place in the region. They see their Fatah rivals in the West Bank, who have been open to negotiating with Israel, as appeasers and traitors to the Palestinian cause.

  • Golan Heights

    A fortified and strategically important hilly area on the border of Syria, Israel, Lebanon and Jordan. The Golan Heights were part of Syria until 1967, when they were captured by Israel during the Six-Day War. Israel unilaterally annexed the Golan Heights in 1981.

    Syria has said it wants to secure the return of the Golan Heights as part of any peace deal. A deal with Syria would also involve the dismantling of Jewish settlements in the territory.

  • Egypt

    Egypt in 1979 became the first Arab state to sign a peace deal with Israel. Despite Arab world pressure, Cairo has adhered at least to the formal requirements of its peace treaty.

    Egypt, under Hosni Mubarak, had played the role of mediator at several very critical junctures in the peace process with the Palestinians and was a key U.S. ally in the tumultuous region. The U.S. underwrites much of Egypt's foreign aid.

    But more recently, Israel's relations with Egypt have deteriorated since Mubarak was ousted by a popular uprising in February 2011. In September, an Egyptian mob stormed the Israeli Embassy in Cairo and forced Israeli diplomats to be evacuated.

  • Syria

    Damascus is one of Israel's harshest opponents, and supports a number of armed groups that carry out attacks against Israel. Israel has condemned Syria for its support for the Hamas Islamic government in Gaza.

    Tensions between Syria and Israel rose in 2010 after Israeli President Shimon Perez accused Syria of supplying Scud missiles to the Lebanon-based Shiite movement Hezbollah, which the U.S. classifies as a foreign terrorist organization. Israel has warned that it will respond to missile attacks from Hezbollah by launching immediate retaliation against Syria itself.

    Hamas and other radical Palestinian groups based in Syria have rejected any move by the Palestinian Authority to resume direct peace talks with Israel.

    Syria has accused Israel of posing a threat to the world with its "huge military nuclear arsenal."

    Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime has found itself under international pressure recently, condemned by leaders around the world for a bloody crackdown on anti-government demonstrators that began in mid-March 2011.

  • Jordan

    Jordan is considered a very important country in resolving the Mideast conflict due to its proximity to Israel and the occupied territories and its large population of Palestinian refugees.

    Jordan, along with Egypt, are the only Arab states to have signed peace treaties with Israel. Jordan is also a strategic ally to the United States in the Middle East.

    Amman has long maintained close security cooperation with Israel but has criticized Israeli treatment of Palestinians and fears a spillover of violence if Israel does not make peace with the Palestinians.

    Jordan's King Abdullah was quoted as saying in September 2011 that Jordan and the Palestinians were now in a stronger position than Israel, telling a group of academics that the Arab uprisings had weakened Israel's position.

  • Lebanon

    Lebanon, a small Middle East sovereign state, has long been the staging ground of proxy wars in the region. It is bordered by Syria to the north and east, and Israel to the south.

    Dozens of private armies grew out of Lebanon's 15-year civil war that ended in 1990 and still flourish 20 years later.

    A period of relative stability was shattered in 2006 when an all-out 34-day war between Hezbollah, a Shiite Muslim political group with a militant wing the U.S. classifies as a terrorist organization, and Israel caused significant civilian deaths and heavy damage to Lebanon's civil infrastructure.

    Hezbollah is a central player in Lebanon. Hezbollah sets its own military strategy and it makes decisions that could lead to war without the involvement of the Lebanese state.

    The power balance worries the U.S. and Israel, Hezbollah's sworn enemy.

    U.N. peacekeepers have been charged with monitoring Lebanon's southern border with Israel since 1978. The force was boosted to almost 12,000 troops after Israel and Iranian-backed Hezbollah fought in 2006.

Interactive: A history of talks

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