Peace talks to resume in Washington

Israel and the Palestinians have agreed to resume stalled direct peace negotiations in Washington early next month, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton confirmed yesterday.

She made the announcement at the State Department in Washington with special Mideast peace envoy George Mitchell at her side.

The breakthrough marks a small but important step toward easing tensions in the Middle East.

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Clinton said the talks will begin on September 2, hosted by President Barack Obama.

She said the hope is that a comprehensive peace agreement can be reached within one year. The leaders of Egypt and Jordan also have been invited to attend the first session.

The Obama administration has been pushing for a speedy resumption of face-to-face negotiations that broke down in December 2008. Mitchell has been shuttling between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas for months trying to get them to agree.

The Palestinians had been balking at direct talks until the Quartet – the US, UN, European Union and Russia, reaffirmed a March statement calling for a peace deal based on the pre-1967 Mideast war borders.

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But Israel had rejected that, saying it amounted to placing conditions on the negotiations. Israel had been demanding a separate invitation from the US

After weeks of wrangling, officials said a compromise had been reached. Under the deal the Quartet would call for talks that "lead to a settlement, negotiated between the parties, that ends the occupation which began in 1967 and results in the emergence of an independent, democratic, and viable Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security with Israel and its other neighbours."

"As we move forward, it is important that actions by all sides help to advance our effort, not hinder it," Clinton said.

"There have been difficulties in the past; there will be difficulties ahead. Without a doubt, we will hit more obstacles.

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"The enemies of peace will keep trying to defeat us and to derail these talks. But I ask the parties to persevere," said the Secretary of State.

The office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a statement welcoming the US plan.

"Reaching an agreement is a difficult challenge but is possible," the Netanyahu statement said. "We are coming to the talks with a genuine desire to reach a peace agreement between the two peoples that will protect Israel's national security interests, foremost of which is security."

Mitchell said they believe a comprehensive peace agreement "can be done within a year and that is our objective".

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The US, he said, will offer "bridging proposals" designed to advance the negotiations, but he was not specific.

Subsequent negotiating sessions with Netanyahu and Abbas would probably be held in the Middle East.

Also invited to attend the Washington session are Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan's King Abdullah II, "in view of their critical role in this effort," Clinton said.

President Barack Obama will hold separate one-on-one talks with each of the four leaders on September 1, followed by a dinner, Clinton said, to which former Prime Minister Tony Blair, the special representative of the "Quartet" also has also been invited.