Direct talks between Israeli and Palestinian leaders to begin

By Janine Zacharia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, August 31, 2010; 8:55 PM

JERUSALEM - President Obama plunges into Middle East peacemaking on Wednesday with a two-day summit he hopes will be the first step in brokering an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement within a year.

But a deadly shooting in the West Bank late Tuesday underscored the threat that extremists pose to the peacemaking effort.

Four Israelis, including a pregnant woman, were shot dead in a car traveling near the West Bank city of Hebron, shattering a relative calm that has prevailed in the territory as Palestinian security forces have improved their capabilities and asserted more authority in areas under their control.

Fewer attacks had led to an easing of Israeli restrictions on Palestinian movement and improved the climate to resume peace talks. The military wing of the Islamist group Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, took responsibility for the shooting. All four of the dead were from the West Bank settlement of Beit Hagai, witnesses said.

Among Obama's first tasks is to convince increasingly cynical Israeli and Palestinian publics - which have grown weary after 17 years of photo-ops, handshakes and unfulfilled accords - that a two-state solution to the Middle East conflict remains possible.

Obama on Wednesday will hold meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan's King Abdullah II before a dinner at the White House.

On Thursday, direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians - stalled for nearly two years - will be formally relaunched in a ceremony at the State Department. Officials in Jerusalem say Netanyahu and Abbas also plan to meet alone while in Washington for an icebreaker.

There are many obstacles to success, most immediate among them the looming Sept. 26 expiration of a 10-month Israeli moratorium on construction in West Bank settlements. Palestinians see such construction as a key obstacle to statehood.

Netanyahu doesn't have enough support within his government to extend the moratorium, and settler groups have said they will seek to bring down the government if he tries; Abbas says he won't negotiate with Israel if the settlement freeze ends.

"Israel will bear the responsibility for the collapse of the negotiations if they continue building settlements," Abbas said in a speech Sunday night.

Late Tuesday in response to the shooting, the Yesha Council settler group announced that it would begin construction Wednesday, before the moratorium ends.

The move could complicate Netanyahu's meetings in Washington and set up a clash between settlers and the Israeli army, which is supposed to enforce the temporary ban on construction.

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