Washington: US President Barack Obama on Tuesday delicately waded into the first round of Middle East peace talks in years, meeting privately at the White House with lead negotiators for the Israeli and Palestinian delegations.
Even so, the White House strategy remained for Obama to take a mostly hands-off approach to the actual negotiations.
The strategy is in part a vote of confidence in Secretary of State John Kerry, who has embraced the vexing and emotional issue with gusto since joining the administration earlier this year.
It also signals a calculation by the White House that direct presidential intervention is best reserved for the final stages of negotiations if the process ever reaches that point or moments of tension when Obama might be called upon to keep the talks afloat.
Aaron David Miller, a longtime Middle East peace adviser to Democratic and Republican presidents, backed the White House`s approach.
"You don`t want to waste presidential capital," said Miller, now vice president of the Woodrow Wilson International Centre. "But in the end, Obama is going to have to own this if it`s going to succeed."
Israeli and Palestinian negotiators arrived in Washington on Monday to open the talks, the first major effort since negotiations broke down in 2008. An attempt to reopen talks in 2010 collapsed almost immediately.
The new round, taking place at the State Department, continued on Tuesday, with the goal of working out plans for how the talks should proceed in the coming months.
Officials said the parties have agreed to negotiate for at least nine months.
In a written statement yesterday, Obama said the talks marked a "promising step forward," but warned that "hard work and hard choices remain ahead."
Like Obama, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas are not directly involved in this first round. But both have been deeply engaged in the process in recent months, meeting frequently with Kerry.
Kerry and other administration officials have repeatedly cast the revived negotiations as a direct result of Obama`s trip to Israel and the West Bank earlier this year.
"Without his commitment, without his conversations there and without his engagement in this initiative, we would not be here today," Kerry said yesterday before heading to the White House to brief the president on the first round of talks.
Yet Obama, unlike predecessors Bill Clinton and George W Bush, has waited on the sidelines much of his administration and not made negotiations a top priority.
He long has expressed doubts about how much leverage the US has in bringing the parties to the negotiating table and has warned that peace cannot be achieved if American officials want it more than the Israelis and Palestinians.