Israeli and Palestinian leaders agreed Thursday to produce a framework for a permanent peace deal and to hold a second round of direct talks this month, a modest achievement reached amid deep skepticism about success at their first such session in two years.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will meet again on Sept. 14 and 15 in the Middle East, likely at the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheik, with an eye toward forging the outline of a pact that could lead to a final agreement in a year's time.
The United States' special Mideast envoy George Mitchell announced the agreement after several hours of talks between Netanyahu and Abbas at the State Department at which the two leaders pledged to work through the region's deeply ingrained mutual hostility and suspicion to resolve the long-running conflict.
"I believe these two leaders President Abbas and Prime Minister Netanyahu are committed to doing what it takes to achieve the right results," Mitchell told reporters. He refused to discuss specifics of what the framework agreement would entail but said it would lay out the "fundamental compromises" needed for a final settlement.
Those compromises will involve the thorniest issues that have dogged the parties for decades: the borders of an eventual Palestinian state, the political status of Jerusalem, the fate of Palestinian refugees and security.
Mitchell said both he and Clinton would be at the next round. Diplomats said it will likely also include other officials from the "Quartet" of Mideast peacemakers the U.S., the U.N., Russia and the European Union.
Earlier,with an appeal for the two leaders to overcome a long history of failed attempts to resolve the conflict and make the difficult compromises needed for peace.
"I know the decision to sit at this table was not easy," said Clinton, who with Mitchell has been working to relaunch talks stalled for 20 months. "We understand the suspicion and skepticism that so many feel borne out of years of conflict and frustrated hopes."
"But, by being here today, you each have taken an important step toward freeing your peoples from the shackles of a history we cannot change and moving toward a future of peace and dignity that only you can create," she said.
Flanked by Abbas and Netanyahu at the head of a U-shaped table in the State Department's ornate Benjamin Franklin room, Clinton said the Obama administration was committed to a settlement. She stressed, though, that the heavy lifting must be done by Netanyahu and Abbas with support from the international community, particularly the Arab and Israeli publics.
"We will be an active and sustained partner," she said. "But we cannot and we will not impose a solution. Only you can make the decisions necessary to reach an agreement and secure a peaceful future for the Israeli and Palestinian people."
Netanyahu and Abbas vowed to work together but each outlined concessions required from the other.
"I see in you a partner for peace," Netanyahu told Abbas. "Together we can lead our people to a historic future that can put an end to claims and to conflict. Now this will not be easy. A true peace, a lasting peace would be achieved only with mutual and painful concessions from both sides."
Abbas called on Israel to end Jewish settlements in the West Bank and other areas that the Palestinians want to be part off their own state. Netanyahu insisted that any agreement must assure Israel's security as a Jewish state.
"We do know how hard are the hurdles and obstacles we face during these negotiations negotiations that within a year should result in an agreement that will bring peace," Abbas said.
Thursday's negotiations are the first since the last effort broke down in December 2008. A spate of violence this week in the West Bank and concerns about Israeli settlement activity have cast low expectations.
Underscoring the talks' fragility, gunmen from the militant Palestinian Hamas movement killed four Israeli residents of a West Bank settlement on Tuesday. And, on Wednesday, hours before the leaders ate dinner at the White House, Hamas gunmen wounded two Israelis as they drove in their car in another part of the West Bank.
Hamas rejected the talks and stepped up its rhetoric as the ceremony in Washington began.
"These talks are not legitimate because the Palestinian people did not give any mandate to Mahmoud Abbas and his team to negotiate on behalf of our people," said Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman. "Therefore, any result and outcome of these talks does not commit us and does not commit our people, it only commits Abbas himself."
Further complicating the situation is the fact that the talks will face their first test within weeks, at the end of September, when the Israeli government's declared slowdown in settlement construction is slated to end.
Palestinians have said that a renewal of settlement construction will torpedo the talks. The Israeli government is divided over the future of the slowdown, and a decision to extend it could split Netanyahu's hawkish coalition. Netanyahu has given no indication so far that it will continue beyond the deadline.