WASHINGTON -- Israel and the Palestinians have agreed to resume direct talks for the first time in 20 months.
The development was announced August 20 by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
"On behalf of the United States government I've invited Israeli Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President [Mahmud] Abbas to meet on September 2 in Washington, D.C. to re-launch direct negotiations to resolve all final status issues, which we believe can be completed within one year," Clinton said.
Clinton made the announcement standing alongside George Mitchell, the White House's special envoy for Middle East peace talks.
Mitchell has been working for months to bring the two sides together and today he said past failures to achieve a settlement should not affect the talks' chances of success.
"Differences are not going to be resolved immediately, but we do believe that peace in the Middle East, comprehensive peace, including but not limited to an end of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, is very much in the interests of Israelis and Palestinians," he said.
White House Priority
President Barack Obama has made peace in the Middle East a top foreign policy goal since taking office in January 2009.
He will host a dinner for the two leaders at the White House on September 1, before talks officially begin the next day.
Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan's King Abdullah II -- whose countries have peace deals with Israel and will play a crucial support role in the upcoming talks -- will also attend. So will former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who is the special representative of the so-called "Quartet" of Mideast peacemakers, consisting of the United States, the UN, the European Union, and Russia.
Talks between the two sides broke off in November 2007 during George W. Bush's presidency.
The Palestinians were opposed to direct talks until Israel froze the construction of Jewish settlements. A 10-month freeze on Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank is set to expire on September 26 and Israel has rejected calls to extend the moratorium.
The issues that divide the two sides are weighty. They include the borders of a new Palestinian state, the political status of Jerusalem, and the right of return for Palestinian refugees.
Abbas and Netanyahu have agreed to place a one-year time limit on the negotiations.
Mitchell said the United States would step in to offer proposals to bridge gaps "as necessary and appropriate." He said the United States "will be active participants."
Clinton said the negotiations "should take place without preconditions and be characterized by good faith and a commitment to their success."
"The enemies of peace will keep trying to defeat us and to derail these talks. But I ask the parties to persevere, to keep moving forward even through difficult times, and to continue working to achieve a just and lasting peace in the region," she said.
Netanyahu's office issued a statement welcoming the plan that said reaching agreement would be a "difficult challenge" but is "possible."
A formal statement from Abbas' office accepting the invitation was expected.
In Gaza, a spokesman for Hamas, the militant movement that controls the Gaza Strip rejected the invitation.
Sami Abu Zuhri said the group considers "this invitation and the promises included in it empty and . a new attempt to deceive the Palestinian people and international public opinion."