WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama is opening a new round of Mideast peacemaking, bringing Israeli and Palestinian leaders together Wednesday for talks aimed at forging agreement within one year on a two-state solution: a sovereign Palestine and a secure Israel.
Expectations were low as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas arrived Tuesday for preparatory talks with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who has spent months coaxing the parties back to the bargaining table.
The talks will be the first face-to-face sessions between the Israelis and Palestinians since December 2008, but the two sides are far apart on all key issues, so major progress in the early going is seen as unlikely.
Pointing up the tensions that will probably test Obama's diplomacy, a Palestinian gunman opened fire Tuesday on an Israeli vehicle traveling near the West Bank city of Hebron, killing four passengers. The militant Hamas movement, which rejects Israel's right to exist and opposes peace talks, claimed responsibility. Israeli officials called the shooting an attempt to sabotage the discussions and the White House weighed in with its own condemnation.
"This brutal attack underscores how far the enemies of peace will go to try to block progress" in the talks, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said in a strongly-worded statement. "It is crucial that the parties persevere, keep moving forward even through difficult times, and continue working to achieve a just and lasting peace in the region that provides security for all peoples."
In remarks to reporters before their meeting Tuesday evening at a Washington hotel, Netanyahu, with Clinton at his side, said: "We will not let terror decide where Israelis live or the configuration of our final borders. These and other issues will be determined in negotiations for peace that we are conducting and in these negotiations."
Clinton was equally defiant.
"We pledge to do all we can always to protect and defend the state of Israel and to provide security to the Israeli people," she said. "That is one of the paramount objectives that Israel has and the United States supports in these negotiations."
West Bank settlers said Wednesday they will break a government freeze on construction in their communities to protest the attack.
On Wednesday, Abbas and Netanyahu were to meet separately with Obama. Then, joined by Jordan's King Abdullah and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, they will attend a White House dinner intended to set the stage for the launch of formal talks a day later at the State Department. Jordan and Egypt are the only two Arab nations with peace deals with Israel.
Former Sen. George Mitchell, Obama's special Mideast peace envoy, said Tuesday that a strong argument can be made that allowing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to continue indefinitely is more dangerous than making the hard decisions necessary for a peace agreement.
The goal of reaching a deal within one year is intended, Mitchell said, to counter a sense among many in the Mideast that years of inconclusive negotiations mean the process is never-ending.
"It's very important to create a sense that this has a definite concluding point," Mitchell told reporters at the White House. "And we believe that it can be done."
American officials are hopeful they can at least get the two sides to agree to a second round of talks, likely to be held in the second week of September in Egypt. 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, they said.
Talking to reporters on his plane heading for Washington, Abbas called for decisive American involvement in the talks. He said that if the two sides reach a deadlock, the Obama administration should present "proposals to bridge the gap between the two positions."
One major immediate challenge in the talks will be the Palestinians' demand that Israel extend a 10-month freeze on settlement construction in the West Bank. The freeze expires on Sept. 26.
The Palestinians want a state in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem — territories Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war.
Netanyahu, under pressure from his right-wing Likud Party and hawkish coalition partners to resume building inside West Bank settlements when the freeze ends, has made no such pledge. Palestinian officials have warned that without one, the talks in Washington may be nothing more than a two-day excursion to the U.S. capital.
Beyond the settlements, Israel and the Palestinians face numerous hurdles on resolving the other issues of contention, notably the borders of a future Palestinian state, the political status of Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees.
Also complicating the outlook for peace 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.
Associated Press writer Matthew Lee contributed to this report.