Under US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s supervision, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas will sit down for their first direct talks in nearly two years, with issues that have thwarted previous peace efforts on the table.
Israeli and Palestinian forces meanwhile scoured the occupied West Bank for gunmen in the second attack claimed by Hamas, a staunch opponent of the negotiations, in as many days.
An Israeli military official hailed the cooperation with the Palestinian security forces, which he said was at its highest level since the 1993 Oslo accords launched the Middle East peace process.
Despite the flare-up of violence, US President Barack Obama called on both sides not to let slip a fleeting opportunity for peace, a Palestinian state and a secure Israel within a year, as he gathered the two leaders with King Abdullah II of Jordan and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak at the White House on Wednesday.
“This moment of opportunity may not soon come again,” said Obama, who met the leaders separately on Wednesday, and then hosted a dinner that also included Clinton and diplomatic Quartet representative Tony Blair.
The normally hawkish Netanyahu vowed to forge a “historic” peace with the Palestinians and Abbas responded by calling for an end to bloodshed after the latest Hamas attacks, but also demanded a halt to Israel settlement activity.
“President Abbas, you are my partner in peace,” Netanyahu said during a press appearance in the East Room of the White House.
“I came here today to find an historic compromise that will enable both our peoples to live in peace and security and dignity.”
But Netanyahu’s warm words did not disguise the steel of his position, as he vowed to obtain security assurances, warning “terrorists” would not block the path to peace.
“We left Lebanon, we got terror. We left Gaza, we got terror. We want to ensure that territory we concede will not be turned into a third Iranian-sponsored terror enclave aimed at the heart of Israel,” he said.
His office said the Israeli position remained unchanged on letting a partial moratorium on West Bank settlement construction expire at the end of the month.
Turning to Netanyahu, Abbas condemned Tuesday’s attack that killed four Israelis and Wednesday’s strike in which two more were injured.
“We do not want at all that any blood be shed… one drop of blood on the part of Israelis and Palestinians,” he said.
Obama branded the first attack “senseless slaughter,” calling it an example of how opponents of the peace effort would try to halt progress.
Hamas, which rules Gaza, is opposed to the peace talks and is a rival of Abbas’s US-backed Palestinian Authority.
Abbas also demanded a total freeze on settlement activity — without which Palestinians have threatened to walk out of the talks.
Obama pronounced himself “cautiously optimistic” about the day’s events, though many analysts have commented that prospects for progress seem dim, given the fierce divides and lack of popular momentum for a new era of peacemaking.
“We are under no illusions. Passions run deep. Each side has legitimate and enduring interests. Years of mistrust will not disappear overnight,” Obama said.
Thursday’s direct talks, the outcome of painstaking US diplomacy, will take place at the State Department with few participants or observers predicting success amid widespread regional distrust.
The issues on the table — the status of Jerusalem, security, the borders of a Palestinian state and the right of return for Palestinian refugees — have confounded all previous mediation attempts.
Despite his vow to shepherd the peace talks, Obama warned that the United States could not simply impose a solution to the decades-long conflict.
“We cannot want it more than the parties themselves,” he said.
Clinton, Netanyahu and Abbas will all make opening statements to the media at the start of their meeting, due to begin at 10am
The Quartet of the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia launched a roadmap for peace in 2003 that calls for a Palestinian state living alongside a secure Israel.
Top level talks broke off in 2008 when Israel invaded the Gaza Strip to halt militant rocket fire on its south. – Sapa-AFP