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ABBAS, NETANYAHU RELAUNCH PEACE TALKS

By NBF News

Israeli and Palestinian leaders launched their first direct talks in 20 months on Wednesday, starting the clock on a daunting one-year deadline to flesh out a Palestinian state to live in peace with Israel.

After a day of weighty symbolism and lofty rhetoric at the White House, United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sat down on Wednesday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, Agence France Presse reports.

'I want to thank all of you for joining us today to relaunch negotiations,' Clinton, who is hosting the talks, told the two leaders, praising them for their 'courage and commitment.'

'The decision to sit at this table was not easy. We understand the suspicion and scepticism that so many feel borne out of years of conflict and frustrated hopee,' Clinton said.

'A tragic act of it terror on Tuesday and the terrorist shooting yesterday are yet additional reminders of the human costs of this conflict.'

In an ornate room at the State Department, the leaders were to tackle core issues that have bedevilled decades of peace attempts - Israel's security, the borders of a Palestinian state, the right of return for Palestinian refugees and the fate of Jerusalem, claimed by both as their capital.

Host Clinton, Middle East envoy George Mitchell and other US officials were to work with Netanyahu, Abbas and their teams during an intense three hours of brass-tacks negotiations.

Clinton spokesman Philip Crowley did not rule out the possibility that the Israeli and Palestinian leaders might huddle on their own.

Analysts expect the two sides to first tackle the less difficult issues of security and borders and skirt the thorny problems of refugees and Jerusalem, which cut to the heart of their identities as peoples living next to each other.

Mitchell, a former troubleshooter in Northern Ireland who has a reputation as a dogged mediator, has said he is prepared to intervene with 'bridging proposals' if needed and appropriate.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who was at the White House to help mediate the talks, urged US President Barack Obama to throw the full weight of the United States behind the talks, Mubarak's spokesman Soliman Awaad said.

'What is really needed is for the United States to step in, remain committed, remain engaged and lend a helping hand to the two parties in order to help bridge the gaps in the positions, sort the differences,' he said.