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Direct talks between Israeli and Palestinian leaders to begin

"The only response that will show our resolve against terror is to commit ourselves to building," said Naftali Bennett, director general of the Yesha Council.

In a briefing Tuesday with reporters in Washington, George J. Mitchell, Obama's special envoy to the Middle East, said, "Our position on settlements is well known and remains unchanged."

"We've always made clear that the parties should promote an environment that is conducive to negotiations," Mitchell said. "Our discussions continue with both sides, and they are consistent with and comprise in part the points that I just made."

Beyond the settlement impasse, there are questions about Netanyahu's and Abbas's capabilities and intentions.

Even if Abbas is able to negotiate a deal, there are questions about whether it would be possible to implement the agreement when the Gaza Strip is controlled by Abbas's rival, Hamas.

Meanwhile, some observers say Netanyahu's own ideology and the pressures of his right-wing coalition won't permit him to negotiate a peace deal.

"We are in the unfortunate situation where indeed the United States does feel a greater sense of urgency than the parties,'' said Robert Danin, a Middle East analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations. "Both sides want to avoid being blamed for this process not moving forward."

Abbas enjoys little popular support for negotiations, which Palestinians say have failed to produce a state in the 17 years since Israel and the Palestinians signed the landmark Oslo accords at the White House.

Last week, Palestinian security forces violently dispersed a gathering in the West Bank city of Ramallah of those who oppose negotiations. "There is zero percent hope that anything productive will come out of it," Mustafa Barghouti, a Palestinian politician, said of the talks.

Abbas, too, is highly skeptical that Netanyahu will offer a deal that the Palestinians can accept. Palestinian observers say the 75-year-old Abbas is traveling to Washington only because he was coerced, not because he believes the talks will lead to an end of Israel's occupation of the West Bank.

But others say Netanyahu is more apt to strike a peace deal than is widely believed.

"To me, the question is not whether [Netanyahu] will negotiate. The question is, is there enough overlap between how far he is willing to go and what Abbas will accept?" said Danin, who met frequently with Netanyahu in recent months as a U.S. representative of the Middle East peacemaking body known as the Quartet.

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