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Israelis, Palestinians to meet every two weeks

Israeli and Palestinian leaders opened direct peace talks under U.S. auspices on Thursday and agreed to meet every two weeks to try to forge a deal within a year.
/ Source: Reuters

Israeli and Palestinian leaders agreed to a series of direct talks on Thursday, seeking to forge the framework for a U.S.-backed peace deal within a year and end a conflict that has boiled for six decades.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who hosted the talks between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, expressed confidence that this effort could succeed where so many others have failed.

President Barack Obama, aiming to resolve one of the world's most intractable disputes, has set a goal of striking a deal within 12 month to create an independent Palestinian state that exists peacefully, side-by-side with the Jewish state.

"This will not be easy," Netanyahu said. "A true peace, a lasting peace, would be achieved only with mutual and painful concessions from both sides."

Next meeting in Egypt
Despite widespread skepticism about the chances of this latest attempt to bring peace to the region and the shooting of Jewish settlers by Hamas militants in the West Bank this week, Netanyahu and Abbas agreed to meet again on Sept. 14-15. Diplomats said that meeting will take place in Egypt.

The two sides agreed to meet every two weeks thereafter, U.S. Middle East peace envoy George Mitchell said. The agreement to continue talks marked a small step forward.

"We are convinced that if you move forward in good faith and do not waiver in your commitment to succeed on behalf of your people, we can resolve all of the core issues within one year," Clinton told Netanyahu and Abbas as the talks began.

"You have the opportunity to end this conflict and the decades of enmity between your peoples once and for all."

The two leaders shook hands after the formal start of the talks in an ornate State Department reception room. Both Netanyahu and Abbas have said they want a "two-state solution." But both are hobbled by domestic political challenges, putting prospects for a final deal in question.

Abbas again called on Israel to end the blockade of the Gaza Strip and stop settlement activity. But he also said the Palestinians recognized the need for security, a key Israeli demand.

"We want to state our commitment to follow on all our ... engagements, including security and ending incitement," Abbas said.

Hamas promises attacks; settlers promise more building
The hardline Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, rejected the peace talks and said it would keep attacking Israelis. Four Israelis were killed and two injured in two separate attacks in the occupied West Bank this week.

Jewish settler groups, meanwhile, vowed to push ahead with new construction in occupied areas of the West Bank, underscoring a central sticking point that threatens to derail the negotiations just weeks after they begin.

Netanyahu and Abbas appeared to be in a conciliatory public mood on Thursday. They met together with Clinton for more than an hour, and then privately one-on-one for about 90 minutes, U.S. officials said.

The talks may hit their first road block when Israel's partial freeze on building new settler homes on the West Bank is set to expire on September 26.

Abbas on Thursday again told Netanyahu he would pull out of talks if settlement construction resumed, a senior Palestinian official said.

"We'll try our best, but that will all be torpedoed if Mr. Netanyahu goes back to settlements," Palestinian adviser Nabil Shaath told Reuters.

But Netanyahu has appeared reluctant to extend the building moratorium.

The Palestinians say that the settlements are a direct threat to their hopes to achieve a homeland on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, a goal that has eluded them since Israel was founded in 1948.

Israel dismisses international findings that the Jewish settlements that have been built since the 1980s in the West Bank, on land occupied by the Israeli military since 1967, constitute a violation of international law.

About half a million Jewish settlers live in communities scattered all over the West Bank that have the protection of Israeli armed forces, as well as in Arab East Jerusalem, and Palestinians say it will be impossible for them to establish a coherent state if settlement continues.

Little information to be released
Mitchell said both sides agreed the talks were sensitive and would therefore release little information about details of their discussions. He declined to offer specifics when asked if the settlement issue had been discussed.

But Mitchell — who has spent months shuttling between the two sides to coax them into talks — said they agreed the first item on the agenda would be to work up a "framework agreement" to establish the fundamental compromises necessary.

Rather than specifying the precise lines of a border, such an agreement would lay out the basic compromises on the main issues — presumably including the future of Jerusalem, the fate of Palestinian refugees — in brief terms.

The United States views the Israeli-Palestinian dispute as having a direct effect on U.S. security and diplomacy around the world. Obama, convening the talks ahead of the pivotal November U.S. congressional elections, met both leaders at the White House on Wednesday and later urged them not to let the chance for peace slip.

Clinton will attend the next meeting as the United States tries to resolve a conflict that stokes anti-U.S. sentiment in the Muslim world and beyond. She promised unswerving U.S. support for the peace process but cautioned that it was up to the two sides to craft their own deal.

"By being here today, you each have taken an important step toward freeing your peoples from the shackles of a history we cannot change and moving toward a future of peace and dignity that only you can create," Clinton said.