Washington: With a diplomatic push from President Barack Obama, Israeli and Palestinian leaders start direct peace talks on Thursday overshadowed by skepticism on all sides and violence in the volatile West Bank.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will meet at the State Department, relaunching talks after a 20-month hiatus and seeking a deal within one year that will set up an independent Palestinian state side-by-side with a secure Israel.
Obama, who has staked considerable political capital on the Washington talks during a pivotal US congressional election year, urged both sides to grasp the chance for peace after separate meetings at the White House on Wednesday.
"This moment of opportunity may not soon come again. They cannot afford to let it slip away," Obama said after a day of personal diplomacy on a problem that has confounded generations of US leaders.
But opponents of a settlement and the concessions that would be required to reach it threatened to sabotage the talks.
In Gaza, Hamas said its militants would keep on attacking Israelis in West Bank settlements, where Palestinian police have rounded up more than 500 Hamas suspects after a member of the Islamist group shot dead four Jewish settlers on Tuesday.
"Mahmoud Abbas does not have the right to speak for the Palestinians," said a Hamas spokesman.
Jewish settlers announced plans to launch new construction immediately in their West Bank enclaves, defying the Israeli government`s moratorium which has three more weeks to run.
A settlers spokeswoman said the freeze was over and building would resume in 80 settlements without further delay. A spokesman for the Palestinians said Israel must stop any activity aimed at "sabotaging the peace efforts."
The issue of settlements looms large over the peace talks. Abbas has warned he will walk out unless Israel extends its self-imposed moratorium before it expires on September 26.
Thursday will see both sides get down to business after the pomp of their White House reception. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will host the State Department talks, with opening statements expected around 10 a.m. EDT.
US Mideast peace envoy George Mitchell, who has been shuttling between the two camps for months to lay down the parameters for the negotiations, will give a public briefing after talks conclude to explain what -- if anything -- has been accomplished.
Violence flared anew as the leaders arrived in Washington, underscoring challenges ahead.
Four Israeli settlers were killed by the Islamist Palestinian group Hamas in a shooting attack in the West Bank on Tuesday. Another two people were wounded in a similar attack by suspected Palestinian gunmen on Wednesday.
Both Netanyahu and Abbas condemned Tuesday`s attack, which Obama described as "senseless slaughter."
But they put new emphasis on Israel`s security concerns and Netanyahu, who heads a coalition dominated by pro-settler parties, has resisted any formal extension of the partial construction freeze, leaving a question mark over the prospects for the talks.
Obama`s personal foray into Middle East peacemaking, with its ambitious one-year timeline for a deal, comes as his fellow Democrats face potentially big losses in November`s congressional elections.
The talks are also seen as a test of Obama`s faltering drive to improve ties with the Muslim world as he pushes for a united front against Iran`s nuclear ambitions.
Both Netanyahu and Abbas were conciliatory after their meetings with Obama on Wednesday but both also stressed their own political imperatives: security for Israel in Netanyahu`s case, and a halt to settlement activity for Abbas.
Abbas in particular is in a delicate position. His Fatah party holds sway over only the West Bank after Hamas seized control of Gaza in 2007. Analysts say it would be politically perilous for him to accept any resumption of settlement construction on land captured in the 1967 war while talks are under way.
Obama`s White House meetings on Wednesday also included Jordan`s King Abdullah and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, drawing in two key moderate Arab leaders whose countries already have peace deals with Israel.
Mubarak spokesman Soliman Awaad said all sides should be ready for long, tough negotiations -- provided the talks are not quickly derailed by the settlement issue.
"It will take more than handshakes, smiles and photo ops to make this long-awaited peace in the Middle East. What is really needed is for the United States to step in, remain committed, remain engaged," he told reporters.