A 'future of peace' urged at new talks

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By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 3, 2010

The Obama administration formally inaugurated its foray into Middle East peacemaking on Thursday, bringing together the Israeli and Palestinian leaders for face-to-face talks and securing their pledge to meet every two weeks to pursue an end to the decades-old conflict.

At a State Department ceremony, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton evoked a history of failed efforts to end the Israeli-Palestinian strife, warning that these negotiations will be no easier. Her husband's Democratic administration and that of Jimmy Carter invested extensive time and prestige to bring about an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, as did Republicans George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. Although some came close, none succeeded.

Clinton encouraged Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, who flanked her at the head of a large, U-shaped table, to work through the "sabotage" and other challenges that will probably batter the talks in the year ahead.

"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. "So thank you - thank you for your courage and commitment."

Clinton's remarks began what is planned to be a year-long negotiation to resolve the conflict's most vexing issues, including the status of Jerusalem, the right of Palestinian refugees to return to homes inside Israel and the future Palestinian state's final borders.

Israelis and Palestinians broke off direct talks in December 2008, and the Obama administration has spent more than a year working to bring the two parties back together.

But many obstacles to a peace agreement remain, and President Obama emphasized Wednesday that "years of mistrust will not disappear overnight." Administration officials, along with the Middle East leaders who have traveled to Washington this week to launch the talks, have sought to manage expectations while also injecting a measure of urgency into the process.

The Palestinian national movement is deeply divided between Abbas's secular Fatah movement and Hamas, the armed Islamist group that killed four Israelis in the West Bank on the eve of the new talks. Hamas rejects Israel's right to exist and opposes peace talks.

Netanyahu is managing a fragile governing coalition that includes parties ideologically opposed to the creation of a Palestinian state on territory they claim as the Jewish ancestral homeland.

Within weeks, he must decide whether to extend a 10-month moratorium on settlement construction in the occupied West Bank. Some of his coalition partners have threatened to leave his government, potentially collapsing it, if he does. Abbas has said he might withdraw from the nascent peace talks if Netanyahu doesn't.

The ceremony of the past two days now gives way to what Obama called the "hard work" ahead, facilitated by the United States.

"We believe, Prime Minister and President, that you can succeed, and we understand that this is in the national security interest of the United States that you do so," Clinton said. "But we cannot and we will not impose a solution."


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