WASHINGTON — On the eve of the first direct talks in nearly two years between the top leaders of Israel and the Palestinian Authority, President Barack Obama welcomed them to the White House Wednesday and urged them to "recognize this as a moment of opportunity that must be seized."
Obama conceded that in the elusive quest for a peace deal that would end the 1967 Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and create an independent Palestinian state, the United States "cannot want it more than the parties themselves . . . we cannot do it for them." In late afternoon remarks from the Rose Garden, he told skeptics of the latest round of talks, "If we do not make the attempt, then failure is guaranteed."
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas are going ahead with the talks despite the killing of four Israeli settlers near Hebron on Tuesday by the militant group Hamas in an apparent effort to derail the process. Regardless of the shooting, the prospects for a deal could wither if Israel follows through on allowing a moratorium on settlement construction to expire on Sept. 26.
Obama didn't address the moratorium in his Rose Garden statement, which he gave after meeting individually with the leaders, nor did he respond to shouted questions from reporters.
He said that "if both sides do not commit to these talks in earnest, then the longstanding conflict will only continue to fester and will consume another generation, and this we simply cannot allow."
Obama met with Netanyahu, then Abbas, then King Abdullah of Jordan, then Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. All participated in a closed-door working dinner Wednesday evening in the Old Family Dining Room of the White House, along with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair in his capacity as Middle East negotiator for the "Quartet" of diplomatic powers — the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia.
Abbas said he's committed to peace and "we will spare no effort and will work diligently" but that Israel must commit to "a freeze on all settlements" and the "release of all our prisoners." He condemned the Hamas attacks near Hebron and said "we do not want any blood to be shed."
Netanyahu said he's committed to forging a lasting peace and called Abbas his "partner." Then, however, he said that when Israel left Lebanon, "We got terror. We left Gaza, we got terror. We want to ensure that territory we concede will not be turned into a third Iranian sponsored terror enclave aimed at the heart of Israel." Netanyahu said any peace deal would need "security arrangements that can withstand the test of time."
Much of the White House talks Wednesday focused on the looming end of the moratorium on new Israeli settlements.
It was the "centerpiece of worry," Mubarak's spokesman, Soliman Awaad, told reporters. "Everybody's hoping this round of negotiations doesn't come to a very near end" because Israel "doesn't make the right decision on the 26th."
Awaad said Mubarak urged Israelis and Palestinians to seize the moment, and urged Obama to stay deeply engaged beyond simply launching the talks. "We hope it works this time. Because the peace process has had many ups and downs. It can hardly sustain another failure."
Netanyahu and Abbas are to open direct negotiations Thursday at the State Department. The two sides are expected to announce there that they will hold one, or possibly two, more meetings later this month, which will take place in the Middle East, most likely in Egypt.
An Israeli diplomat said the Obama administration was working to postpone discussion of the settlement moratorium until later this month, so it doesn't abort the talks at the very outset. He wasn't authorized to speak for the record.
Obama, in a midday statement with Netanyahu, condemned the killings near Hebron but vowed, "This is not going to stop us." He also said that "there are going to be those who are going to do everything they can to undermine these talks, but we are going to remain stalwart." He said the United States remained "unwavering" in support of Israel's security.
The Obama administration has set a goal of one year for reaching a peace deal. In Israel, however, some voices Wednesday called for Netanyahu to return home, and a settler organization threatened to break the Israeli government's ban on new West Bank construction.
Obama sought to keep the talks on track despite the added pressure. "We are going to push back against these kinds of terrorist activities," he said. "So 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 ensuring a secure Israel but also securing a longer-lasting peace."
Of Abbas, Obama said, "I have the utmost confidence in him and his belief in a two-state solution in which the people of Israel and the Palestinians are living side by side in peace and security."
Netanyahu said his talks Wednesday morning with Obama had been "open, productive, serious in the quest for peace," and "also centered around the need to have security arrangements that are able to roll back this kind of terror and other threats to Israel's security. That is a fundamental element, an important foundation of the peace that we seek and work for."
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