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Peace talks 'cautiously hopeful'

Under the shadow of fresh violence, US President Barack Obama solemnly convened the first direct Israeli-Palestinian talks in two years, challenging Mideast leaders to seize a fleeting opportunity to deliver peace to a region haunted by decades of hostility.

"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. Earlier Obama had met with each individually, and they gathered afterwards for dinner.

The mood appeared cordial as the leaders commenced the talks aimed at creating a sovereign Palestinian state beside a secure Israel.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shook hands warmly and thanked Obama for pressing for the renewed talks despite such seemingly intractable differences as Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank. The two leaders begin face-to-face talks on Thursday at the State Department.

"Do we have the wisdom and the courage to walk the path of peace?" Obama asked. In turn, each of the leaders answered positively but with qualifications. And they spoke hopefully of chances for a breakthrough within the one-year timeframe prescribed by Obama.

Netanyahu said his nation desires a lasting peace, not an interlude between wars. He called Abbas "my partner in peace," and said, "Everybody loses if there is no peace."

Abbas urged Israel to freeze settlement construction in areas the Palestinians want as part of their new state, and to end its blockade of Gaza, which is controlled by the militant Hamas movement. The settlements issue is a central obstacle to achieving a permanent peace.

"We will spare no effort and we will work diligently and tirelessly to ensure these negotiations achieve their cause," Abbas said, as translated into English.

Obama assailed those responsible for the killings of four Israelis near the West Bank city of Hebron on Tuesday. The militant Hamas movement, which rejects Israel's right to exist and opposes peace talks, claimed responsibility.

On Wednesday, Israeli police reported still another attack, saying Palestinian militants wounded two Israelis driving in the West Bank. Two people were reported injured, their car riddled with bullets.

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