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Obama Kicks Off Middle East Peace Talks With Dinner

Capping off a day of one-on-one meetings with Middle East leaders, President Barack Obama hosted a private dinner to bring them all together Wednesday, a day before they are set to resume Israeli-Palestinian peace talks for the first time in nearly two years.

Earlier in the day, Obama laid out clear goals for the talks being mediated by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, among others.

“These will be direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians,” he said. “These negotiations are intended to resolve all final status issues. The goal is a settlement, negotiated between the parties, that ends the occupation which began in 1967 and results in the emergence of an independent, democratic and viable Palestinian state, living side by side in peace and security with a Jewish state of Israel and its other neighbors. That’s the vision we are pursuing.”

The president spent the afternoon in private meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority, President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and King Abdullah II of Jordan. Formal negotiations with Clinton will begin Thursday, with an ultimate goal of creating a Palestinian state in one year.

“When we come together, we will not be alone,” Obama told the leaders, who sat together and gave brief remarks before heading into the private dinner. “Each of you are the heirs of peacemakers. Now, like each of them, we must ask, ‘Do we have the wisdom and courage to walk the path of peace?'”

Netanyahu and Abbas both directly addressed each other in their remarks.

“President Abbas, we cannot erase the past. But it is within our power to change the future,” Netanyahu said, referring to Abbas as his “partner in peace.” He cited past Jewish prophets who envisioned lasting peace in the region and called on Abbas to “let today be an auspicious step in our joined effort to realize that ancient vision.”

Abbas followed by condemning Tuesday’s slaying of four Israelis in the West Bank and calling on Netanyahu to work with him to sign “a final agreement for peace and put an end to a very long period of struggle.”

Obama acknowledged that coming together “is not easy” for the two leaders because they both have constituents with “legitimate complaints” about how to proceed in resolving the region’s conflict.

“For them to be here, to be willing to take this first step, the most difficult step, is a testament to their courage and their integrity,” he said. “I am hopeful, cautiously hopeful but hopeful, that we can achieve the goal that all four of these leaders articulate.”

Other attendees in the otherwise small dinner included Clinton and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who represents the “quartet” of Middle East peacemakers: the United States, United Nations, European Union and Russia.