US readies bold bid for Mideast peace

The Obama administration geared up for a bold bid to relaunch direct Palestinian-Israeli peace talks and clinch a peace deal within a year as Middle East leaders gathered in Washington.

Arriving here after an attack killed four Israelis near a Jewish settlement in the Palestinian West Bank, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pressed Israel's security demands but pledged to keep the talks on track after a 20-month hiatus.

"I will set clearly the security needs that are required precisely to address these kind of terror," Netanyahu said, while vowing: "We will not let the blood of Israeli civilians go unpunished."

"We witnessed today a savage murder of four innocent Israelis," Netanyahu said in Washington. "There are seven new orphans that were added to the circle of grief in Israel."

"We will find the murderers, we will punish their dispatchers," Netanyahu said. "We will not let terror decide where Israelis live or the configuration of our final borders."

An Israeli border policeman blocks the road after a settlers' car was ambushed by Palestinian gunmen killing two woman and two men next to Kiryat Arba settlement in the southern West Bank

The attack, claimed by the Palestinian militant group Hamas, was strongly condemned by the White House and Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, who arrived in the US capital shortly before Netanyahu.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is hosting the Israeli-Palestinian talks, offered fresh security assurances to the Israelis as she went into talks Tuesday night with Netanyahu.

"It is one of the reasons why the prime minister is here today, to engage in direct negotiations with those Palestinians who themselves have rejected a path of violence in favor of a path of peace," she said.

"We pledge to do all we can always to protect and defend the state of Israel and to provide security to the Israeli people."

Netanyahu's spokesman Mark Regev said the peace talks would go ahead despite the attack.

"There is no change. We are committed to peace. We are committed to moving forward and committed to a historic peace arrangement with the Palestinians."

US President Barack Obama prepared to host separate meetings not only with Abbas and Netanyahu at the White House on Wednesday, but also with King Abdullah II of Jordan and President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt.

These talks -- followed by a dinner of the five leaders and diplomatic Quartet representative Tony Blair -- are designed to help launch direct talks between Abbas and Netanyahu on Thursday at the State Department.

In condemning Tuesday's attack in Kiryat Arba, a West Bank settlement, Abbas said it was intended to "disrupt the political process." Hamas is opposed to the peace talks and is a rival of Abbas's US-backed Palestinian Authority.

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 in search of the elusive peace deal broke off in 2008 when Israel invaded the Palestinian Gaza Strip to halt militant rocket fire on its south.

And there are few illusions that the new direct talks, after months of US-sponsored indirect negotiations, will overcome lingering Israeli-Palestinian divisions any time soon.

Huge issues -- many unresolved since the creation of Israel in 1948 -- remain on the table including the status of Jerusalem, claimed by both sides as their capital, and the fate of Palestinian refugees chased from their lands.

Continued Jewish settlements in Palestinian territories are seen as a major hurdle to the peace process, with a 10-month Israeli freeze due to expire on September 26.

Obama's Middle East envoy George Mitchell, briefing journalists ahead of the talks, said the president's one-year timeframe to seal a deal was "realistic" despite the scale of the task.

"We believe these negotiations can be completed within one year," Mitchell said. "We will engage with perseverance and patience to try to bring them to a successful conclusion."

But Abbas has threatened to walk out of talks if settlement construction resumes, and Netanyahu has vowed not to extend the moratorium. The attack near the settlement underscored the massive importance of the issue.

Netanyahu, a hawk who only last year recognized the internationally-backed principle of a two-state solution, said on Sunday he hoped to reach "a peace based on recognition, security, stability and economic prosperity between the two peoples that will endure for us and our children."

Abbas has urged "Israel not to miss this historic opportunity for peace," saying "if there is only a one percent chance of achieving peace we will strive for it."

Israeli President Shimon Peres insisted on Tuesday that Netanyahu was headed to the United States "aware of the greatness of his mission, and I think he is well prepared to meet the chance."

But he said any future Palestinian state must be demilitarized.

source AFP

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