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Middle East Talks Relaunching After Four Israelis Shot Dead


Jewish settlers stop at an Israeli army roadblock that leads to the West Bank village of Bani Nai, where four Israelis were gunned down on August 31.

WASHINGTON -- U.S. President Barack Obama has welcomed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas to the White House for the start of a new round of Middle East peace talks.

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.

Obama addressed the August 31 killings of four Israelis near the West Bank city of Hebron, for which the militant Hamas movement -- which rejects Israel's right to exist and opposes peace talks -- claimed responsibility.

"The message should go out to Hamas and everybody else who is taking credit for these heinous crimes 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," he said.

Obama also met with Jordanian King Abdullah and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and tonight will host a working dinner with Abbas, Netanyahu, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the official representative of the international Quartet of Middle East mediators.

'No Compromise' On Security

This week's talks between the Israeli and Palestinian leaders are the first direct talks in almost two years. The West Bank attack seemed aimed at derailing the process, for which expectations of success are already low.

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."

Israeli forces today sealed off parts of the West Bank, while Palestinian security officials detained dozens of people. Hamas lawmaker Omar Abd al-Raziq said more than 150 members of the militant group had been detained in the overnight sweep throughout the West Bank.

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 during a meeting in Washington with Clinton, who offered security assurances to Israel.

"I thank [Netanyahu] for his leadership in seeking a different future for the children of Israel. 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."

The White House called on all parties to "continue working to achieve a just and lasting peace in the region." Obama denounced the deaths as "senseless slaughter" and said the attack could not disrupt renewed Middle East peace efforts.

Russia condemned the attack as a "terrorist" ploy to derail efforts to relaunch the peace process and urged Israeli and Palestinian leaders to show restraint in the face of the attack.

The attack was also condemned by Abbas, who said it was apparently aimed at disrupting the political process. As an attack on civilians, the Palestinian leader said, it cannot be considered an act of Palestinian resistance.

Before leaving the West Bank, Abbas urged Israel "not to miss this historic opportunity for peace," saying: "If there is only a 1% chance of achieving peace we will strive for it."

U.S. Hopes For 'Peace Within A Year'

Netanyahu expressed hope for "a peace based on recognition, security, stability and economic prosperity between the two peoples."

Israel and the Palestinian Authority agreed last month to hold direct peace talks on September 2 -- the first such discussions since December 2008 -- under a U.S. plan to achieve peace within a year.

But the issues that divide the two sides remain weighty. They include the borders of a future Palestinian state, the political status of Jerusalem, and the right of return for Palestinian refugees.

The Palestinians were opposed to direct talks until Israel froze the construction of Jewish settlements. But the 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.

compiled from agency reports