WASHINGTON — Israelis and Palestinians on Thursday opened their first direct peace negotiations in 20 months, a long-shot attempt to end the conflict that host Secretary of State Hillary Clinton acknowledged is burdened by history and bitter disputes.
"We've been here before, and we know how difficult the road ahead will be," Clinton said, flanked by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the State Department's ornate Benjamin Franklin Room.
The two men and President Barack Obama have set a highly ambitious one-year timetable to solve long-intractable disputes over the borders of a Palestinian state, Jewish settlements in the West Bank, the fate of Palestinian refugees and other issues.
The talks face a potential crisis point in little more than three weeks, when Netanyahu's moratorium on new settlement construction expires. Abbas, backed by Arab nations, says he'll abandon the talks if Israel resumes settlement construction.
They also face threats from hard-liners on both sides. Jewish settlers vowed this week to renew construction on Palestinian-claimed lands, while the militant Palestinian group Hamas has promised more attacks like the one that killed four settlers Tuesday.
Netanyahu, a hawkish premier who opposed the 1993 Oslo accords, said a peace agreement would require painful concessions from both Israelis and Palestinians. "From my side, and from your side," he said, gesturing to Abbas. He said he was ready "to go a long way in a short time."
Netanyahu reiterated demands that a final peace deal include Palestinian recognition of Israel as a "Jewish nation-state," and take into account Israel's legitimate security concerns.
Abbas, who's long opposed violence as a way of achieving Palestinian independence but is in a weak political position, reiterated demands that Israel "end all settlement activity" and lift its blockade of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.
"We do know how hard are the hurdles and obstacles we are facing," he said, yet "the road is clear in front of us."
Thursday's talks were expected to yield little more than an agreement for Abbas and Netanyahu to meet again in two weeks, probably in the Egyptian resort city of Sharm el Sheik. A third meeting is likely on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York, just days before the settlement moratorium expires.
The closed-door talks at the State Department were expected to last about three hours. Clinton closed the opening ceremonial session, held at a U-shaped table under a portrait of Benjamin Franklin, by declaring: "Now it's time to get to work."
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