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Middle-East peace talks open after settlers’ murders

Just 24 hours after formally winding up the US combat mission in Iraq, President Obama yesterday began two days of intensive summitry with separate White House meetings: first with Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu, then with the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas.

A dinner last night followed, with the region's most important supporting players, King Abdullah of Jordan and Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, among the guests, before Mr Abbas and Mr Netanyahu get down to business in earnest this morning in face-to-face negotiations at the State Department. The ceremony will be presided over by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Meanwhile late on Tuesday, the military wing of Hamas, the Islamist Palestinian group and bitter rival of Mr Abbas's Fatah movement, claimed responsibility for killing four Israeli settlers travelling near Hebron on the West Bank.

The shootings were plainly designed to undermine the authority of Mr Abbas and derail the new talks even before they began. A furious Mr Abbas condemned the attack, as did Mrs Clinton and the Israeli Prime Minister.

Yesterday President Obama made an unscheduled appearance in the White House Rose Garden with Mr Netanyahu, to express his disgust at the “heinous and senseless” slaughter, and the “unwavering” commitment of the US to Israel's security. The stakes are that high.

Mr Obama's goal is the same two-state solution sought by presidents Clinton and Bush before

him, based on agreement on the four core issues of security, borders, Palestinian refugees displaced by the creation of Israel and the status of Jerusalem. Like George W Bush, he has set a one-year target for a deal.

The contours of any viable final settlement have long been known: secure borders perhaps monitored by outside forces, the return of the vast bulk of the West Bank to the Palestinians, along with territorial compensations elsewhere for areas where the density of Israeli settlements makes retrocession impossible. There would be a purely symbolic right of return for refugees to Israel proper, while both states would share Jerusalem as their capital.

In other words, the diplomats can come up with a solution. What has always been lacking is the political will to accept it. “We don't need to re-invent the wheel,” Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said yesterday.

“The time is not for negotiations, but for decisions.”

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