U.S. President Barack Obama has welcomed Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas to the White House for the start of a new round of Middle East peace talks.
In a White House appearance on September 1 on the eve of the official start of talks at the State Department, Obama stood at a podium flanked by Netanyahu and Abbas as well as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan's King Abdullah II.
He urged the two sparring leaders not to let "the chance for peace slip away" and brought them together for ceremonial handshakes.
Netanyahu called Abbas a "partner in peace." Abbas said he was committed to the U.S.-led process despite "difficulties" likely to emerge on September 2 when talks get under way.
Obama also acknowledged the long odds of success, but said direct communication was the only hope for peace.
"The hard work is only beginning," Obama said. "Neither success nor failure is inevitable. But this much we know: If we do not make the attempt, then failure is guaranteed. If both sides do not commit to these talks in earnest, then the long-standing conflict will only continue to fester and consume another generation, and this we simply cannot allow."
Earlier, Obama met separately with each man and then appeared before the media with Netanyahu to say that he and the Israeli leader had enjoyed a "very productive discussion" about how to achieve peace in the region.
Both the EU foreign policy cheif Catherine Ashton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov have praised Washington for organizing the talks. West Bank Killings
But the hopeful start was overshadowed by the killing of four Israelis near the West Bank city of Hebron. The militant Hamas movement, which rejects Israel's right to exist and opposes peace talks, claimed responsibility.
Obama said extremists who try to hijack the peace process will not succeed. "The message should go out to Hamas and everybody else who is taking credit for these heinous crimes," he said, "that this is not going to stop us from not only insuring a secure Israel but also securing a longer-lasting peace in which people throughout the region can take a different course."
The Al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of the militant Hamas movement, which opposes peace talks, claimed responsibility for the attack near the Jewish settlement of Kiryat Arba, near Hebron.
In Gaza City, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri told Reuters that the attack was in reaction to the Israeli occupation.
"Al-Qassam's heroic operation in Hebron is a natural reaction to the occupation's crimes and is a continuation to the series of heroic operations to confront these crimes," Zuhri said. "This operation does not have any relation to the negotiations between the Israeli occupation and Fatah and there is no connection as far as the timing is concerned."
Following the incident, Israeli forces sealed off parts of the West Bank, while Palestinian security officials detained dozens of people. Hamas lawmaker Omar Abdel-Raziq said more than 150 members of the militant group had been detained in the overnight sweep throughout the West Bank.Long Road
Meanwhile, Netanyahu declared that the incident showed that Israel can make "no compromise" in negotiations with Palestinians on Israeli security requirements.
"We will not let the blood of Israeli civilians go unpunished. We will find the murderers. We will punish their dispatchers. We will not let terror decide where Israelis live, or the configuration of our final borders," Netanyahu said. "These and other issues will be determined in the negotiations for peace that we are conducting. In these negotiations, I will clearly set out security needs that are required precisely to end this kind of terror."
Netanyahu spoke to reporters in Washington the day of the attack. He appeared alongside Clinton, who offered security assurances to Israel.
"I thank [Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu] for his leadership in seeking a different future for the children of Israel," Clinton said. "And we pledge to do all we can always to protect and defend the state of Israel and to provide security to the Israeli people. That is one of the paramount objectives that Israel has and the United States supports in these negotiations."
Israel and the Palestinian Authority agreed last month to hold the first direct talks since December 2008. The U.S. proposal calls for a deadline of one year to achieve peace.
But the issues that divide the two sides have eluded agreement for years. They include the borders of a future Palestinian state, the political status of Jerusalem, Israeli security, and the right of return for Palestinian refugees.
The Palestinians were opposed to direct talks until Israel froze construction of Jewish settlements. A 10-month freeze on Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank is set to expire September 26 and Israel has rejected calls to extend the moratorium.
compiled from agency reports