Israel and Palestine leaders agree to talk again

The leaders of Israel and the Palestinians have concluded a productive first round of peace negotiations, United States President Barack Obama's special envoy for the Middle East said yesterday.

Former Senator George Mitchell said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas agreed to convene a second round of talks from September 14-15 in the Middle East.

He also said they would meet every two weeks after that.

Earlier, the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, formally opened the first direct peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians in nearly two years with a plea for both sides to make compromises to forge an agreement.

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At a ceremony in the State Department's ornate Benjamin Franklin room in Washington, Mrs Clinton said the Obama administration was committed to securing a settlement in a year's time.

But, she stressed that the heavy lifting must be done by Mr Netanyahu and Mr Abbas.

"We will be an active and sustained partner," she said "but we cannot and we will not impose a solution. Only you can make the decisions necessary to reach an agreement and secure a peaceful future for the Israeli and Palestinian people."

Mr Netanyahu and Mr Abbas pledged their seriousness to securing an agreement and overcoming decades of mutual hostility and suspicion.

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"This will not be easy," Mr Netanyahu said. "True peace, a lasting peace, will be achieved only with mutual and painful concessions from both sides."

Mr Abbas said: "We do know how hard are the hurdles and obstacles we face during these negotiations – negotiations that within a year should result in an agreement that will bring peace."

He called on Israel to end Jewish settlements in the West Bank and other areas that the Palestinians want to be part off their own state. Mr Netanyahu insisted that any agreement must assure Israel's security.

The negotiations were the first since the last effort broke down in December 2008 and were beset by complications, including recent violence in the West Bank and Israeli settlement activity.

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Sitting at the top of a U-shaped table between Mr Netanyahu and Mr Abbas, Mrs Clinton congratulated the two for agreeing to resume negotiations but warned of difficult days to come in the effort to create an independent Palestinian state.

"I know the decision to sit at this table was not easy," Mrs Clinton said. "We understand the suspicion and scepticism that so many feel borne out of years of conflict and frustrated hopes."

She noted two recent attacks on Israelis in the West Bank claimed by the militant Hamas movement underscored the difficulties facing the two leaders.

"But, by being here today, you each have taken an important set 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."

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Hamas gunmen killed four Israeli residents of a West Bank settlement on Tuesday as Mr Netanyahu, Mr Abbas and the leaders of Egypt and Jordan convened in Washington.

On Wednesday, hours before the leaders ate dinner at the White House, Hamas gunmen wounded two Israelis as they drove in their car in another part of the West Bank.

The talks will face their first test within weeks, at the end of September, when the Israeli government's declared slowdown in settlement construction is slated to end.

Palestinians have said that a renewal of settlement construction would torpedo the talks. The Israeli government is divided over the future of the slowdown, and a decision to extend it could split Mr Netanyahu's hawkish coalition government.

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President Barack Obama told Israeli and Palestinian leaders they faced a fleeting chance to settle their deep differences.

"This moment of opportunity may not soon come again," Mr Obama said at the White House. "They cannot afford to let it slip away."

"Neither success nor failure is inevitable. But this much we know: if we do not make the attempt, then failure is guaranteed. If both sides do not commit to these talks in earnest, then long-standing conflict will only continue to fester."