Israeli, Palestinian Leaders Conclude Peace Talks, Agree to Meet Again in 2 Weeks

Nearly two years after direct negotiations broke off, Israeli and Palestinian leaders returned to the U.S.-hosted bargaining table Thursday for a productive first round of peace talks beset by a backdrop of terrorist violence in the Mideast.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas ended their peace negotiations by agreeing to meet every two weeks in the Middle East starting Sept. 14, said former Sen. George Mitchell, President Obama's special envoy for Mideast peace.

Earlier Thursday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hosted the formal opening of negotiations after Netanyahu and Abbas spent a day and evening in one-on-one White House talks with Obama.

In a ceremony at the State Department, Clinton said the Obama administration is committed to reaching a settlement in a year's time. But she stressed that after decades of failed attempts the main work belongs to Netanyahu and Abbas.

"We believe, prime minister and president, that you can succeed; and we understand that this is in the national security interests of the United States that you do so. But we cannot and we will not impose a solution," Clinton said.

Netanyahu acknowledged achieving peace won't be easy.

"A true peace, a lasting peace will be achieved only with mutual and painful concessions from both sides," he said. "But the people of Israel and I as their prime minister are prepared to walk this road and to go a long way in a short time to achieve a genuine peace that will bring our people security, prosperity and good neighbors."

Abbas called on Israel to end all settlement activity and lift the embargo on the Gaza Strip.

Sitting at the top of a U-shaped table between Netanyahu and Abbas, Clinton congratulated the two for agreeing to resume negotiations but warned of difficult days to come in the effort to create an independent Palestinian state.

"I know the decision to sit at this table was not easy," Clinton added. "We understand the suspicion and skepticism that so many feel, borne out of years of conflict and frustrated hopes."

Officials say they are hoping to arrange a critical meeting for Sept. 15 in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheik and top aides to the leaders are expected to meet later Thursday to iron out final details of the next step.

Thursday's negotiations are the first since December 2008. But expectations have been set low for the talks.

Two men and two women, one pregnant, were murdered by Hamas while driving in their car near Hebron in the West Bank on Tuesday. The attack by Hamas, a State Department-designated terror organization, served as a reminder about the many factions that want to stop the peace process.

Hamas, which calls for the destruction of Israel, was not at the table in Washington, but it does control the Gaza Strip, one of two territories Palestinians wish to unite for an eventual state.

In response, Abbas exerted his authority by ordering his government to arrest more than 250 members of Hamas in the wake of the shooting.

On Wednesday, Obama condemned the attacks, describing the violence as “senseless slaughter" designed to undermine negotiations.

"I am hopeful, cautiously hopeful, but hopeful," Obama said with the leaders of Jordan, Egypt, Israel and the Palestinians beside him in the crowded East Room of the White House.

Elsewhere, Israeli settlers are preparing to lift a construction freeze in the West Bank, a threat to the process, according to Abbas. At least one member of Israel's Knesset, Uri Ariel, called for Netanyahu to "freeze talks" because "the most violent periods take place when there is a political process."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.