The US prepared today to plunge into a new round of Middle East peacemaking, bringing Israeli and Palestinian leaders together for face-to-face talks for the first time in nearly two years.
But the already low expectations for the talks were jolted even before they began when a Palestinian gunman opened fire on an Israeli vehicle travelling in the West Bank yesterday, killing four passengers.
The militant Hamas movement claimed responsibility and Israeli officials said the shooting was an attempt to sabotage the discussions.
With US officials allowing that success in tomorrow’s negotiations may be defined simply as an agreement to meet again, Barack Obama was getting ready to host Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas.
The goal is to formalise a peace agreement in a year’s time that will lead to the creation of a Palestinian state. But with the two sides far apart on all the key issues, the going is expected to be slow and fraught with difficulties.
Yesterday’s deadly shooting near the town of Hebron was a reminder of the fragility of the situation.
“We will not let the blood of Israeli civilians go unpunished. We will find the murderers, we will punish their dispatchers,” Mr Netanyahu said last night as he met US secretary of state Hillary Clinton at a Washington hotel.
“We will not let terror decide where Israelis live or the configuration of our final borders. These and other issues will be determined in negotiations for peace that we are conducting.”
Mr Netanyahu’s spokesman Mark Regev said earlier that the attack would not change this week’s summit, but served to stress the security concerns that Israel plans to make a central issue in the talks.
“There is no change. We are committed to peace,” Mr Regev said.
Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad’s office said the attack was aimed at undermining his government’s effort to build international support for “the Palestinian position and ending the (Israeli) occupation”.
Mrs Clinton said halting such terror and destruction “is one of the reasons why the prime minister is here today, to engage in direct negotiations with those Palestinians who themselves have rejected a path of violence in favour of a path of peace”.
She added: “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 US supports in these negotiations.”
Mrs Clinton and the administration’s Middle East peace envoy, George Mitchell, met Mr Abbas and Mr Netanyahu yesterday as well as the foreign ministers of Egypt and Jordan and former British prime minister Tony Blair, the representative of the “Quartet” of Middle East peacemakers.
US State Department spokesman PJ Crowley said Mrs Clinton’s talks were intended to clarify where the parties stand as they head into the talks, which the administrations wants to mark “the reinvigoration of intensive process”.
“We want to see not just a successful relaunch tomorrow, but an understanding that, going forward, the leaders will meet on a regular basis,” he said.
Today Mr Abbas and Mr Netanyahu will meet separately with Mr Obama. Then, joined by Jordan’s King Abdullah and Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, they will attend a White House dinner intended to set the stage for the launch of formal talks a day later at the State Department.
Jordan and Egypt are the only two Arab nations with peace deals with Israel.
One major immediate challenge will be the Palestinians’ demand that Israel extend a 10-month freeze on settlement construction in the West Bank that expires on September 26.
Mr Netanyahu, who faces pressure from his right-wing Likud Party and hawkish coalition partners to resume building inside West Bank settlements when the freeze ends, has made no such pledge. And Palestinian officials have warned that without one, the talks in Washington may be nothing more than a two-day excursion to the US capital.
Israel and the Palestinians also face numerous hurdles on resolving the other issues of contention, notably the borders of a future Palestinian state, the political status of Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees.
West Bank settlers said today they would break the government freeze on construction in their communities to protest at the shooting.
The Yesha Council, which represents the settlers, said building work would will resume this evening.
Israel imposed a 10-month freeze on construction in West Bank settlements in an effort to get negotiations with the Palestinians back on track.