By Sam Youngman - 09/02/10 12:40 AM EDT
President Obama launched a new round of Middle East peace talks Wednesday, pushing the region’s leaders toward a lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
One by one, leaders of the Middle East took to the podium in the White House East Room Wednesday night and pledged to work toward a settlement, culminating in a handshake and friendly body language between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.
Direct talks between Netanyahu and Abbas are set to begin Thursday morning at the State Department after an almost two-year long hiatus. Obama on Wednesday met separately at the White House with the two leaders, along with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan’s King Abdullah II.
By nightfall, Obama appeared to have at least paved the way for productive talks to take place despite low expectations. Administration officials and Middle East leaders are hopeful that the negotiations can be completed in one year.
Abdullah and Mubarak praised Obama for pushing for peace and Abbas and Netanyahu for taking the first steps. For Obama, the exchanges between the Israeli prime minister and the Palestinian leader were cause to be “cautiously hopeful.”
The talks began with a backdrop of tragedy, as the militant Hamas group, which controls the West Bank, took responsibility for attacks on Israelis, one of which left four settlers dead.
Obama and Abbas condemned the attacks, and Netanyahu said he “will not let the terrorists block our path to peace.”
“I came here to make an historic compromise,” Netanyahu said.
But despite the grand pledges to work toward peace, the leaders also illustrated why the process has been derailed so many times before.
While Netanyahu took a bold step in calling Abbas his “partner in peace,” he also made clear that history has made him skeptical of new solutions.
“We left Lebanon, and we got terror. We left Gaza, and we got terror again,” Netanyahu said.
Still, he said, while “there are plenty of reasons for skepticism, I have no doubt that peace is possible.”
Abbas, speaking after Netanyahu, made clear that one of his top short-term priorities is to halt further Israeli settlements in the West Bank, but he said explicitly that he does not view that as a precondition for talks.
Abbas blasted what he said is the mistreatment of Palestinians for decades, but he said that “time has come for us to make peace.”
Obama and other leaders warned that the “window of opportunity” is closing, and all the leaders agreed that the stakes are high for the talks.
“All eyes are upon us,” Abdullah said. The talks "must show results… and sooner rather than later.”
“Time is not on our side,” Abdullah said. “If hopes are disappointed again, the price of failure will be too high for all.”
Earlier Wednesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Middle East Special Envoy George Mitchell stood alongside Obama as he made the remarks from the Rose Garden.
Clinton on Thursday will launch the formal talks at the State Department with Netanyahu, Abbas and their delegations. The sides will meet again in the Middle East later this year after Thursday’s talks.
Obama held separate bilateral meetings Wednesday afternoon with Netanyahu, Abbas, Jordanian King Abdullah II and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Those leaders as well as Mitchell and Clinton met Wednesday evening in the Old Family Dining Room.
Obama said that by hosting the talks, he was fulfilling a pledge to “actively and aggressively seek a lasting peace” in the Middle East.
Obama is launching the Middle East peace talks a day after announcing the end of combat operations in Iraq in a nationally-televised address. The goal of lasting peace in the Middle East has eluded five of Obama’s predecessors, and the new talks are opening to skepticism.
Obama on Wednesday acknowledged that the process is “extraordinarily complex and extraordinarily difficult.”
“We are under no illusions,” Obama said in the Rose Garden. “Passions run deep.”
Still, he said, the leaders present have “indicated that these negotiations can be completed within one year.”
Obama pledged to support both sides as they pursue a lasting peace, but he put the region on notice, saying, “We cannot want it more than the parties themselves.”
This story was posted at 6:21 and updated at 8:41.