It is with a pledge of “full and active support” from the US, that the Israeli and Palestinian leaders have begun their first direct talks in nearly two years.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas had the “opportunity to end this conflict”.
Netanyahu said painful concessions from both sides would be needed, and Abbas called on Israel to end all settlement construction and lift the blockade of the Gaza Strip.
The talks were initiated by the American president, who gave them a one-year deadline.
Barack Obama has said the goal is a permanent settlement that ends the Israeli occupation of territory captured in 1967, and an independent, democratic Palestinian state existing peacefully beside Israel.
When the opened the negotiations, Clinton said the US had “pledged its full support to these talks and we will be an active and sustained partner” but said Washington would not impose a solution.
“Mr Prime Minister, Mr President, you have the opportunity to end this conflict and the decades of enmity between your peoples once and for all.”
Speaking after her, both Netanyahu and Abbas acknowledged the difficulty of the task ahead.
“This will not be easy,” Netanyahu said. “True peace, a lasting peace, will be achieved only with mutual and painful concessions from both sides.”
Abbas said: “We do know how hard are the hurdles and obstacles we face during these negotiations – negotiations that within a year should result in an agreement that will bring peace.”
Two of the issues central to the talks were also raised by the leaders : security for the Israelis, and Jewish settlement construction on Palestinian territories.
“We call on the Israeli government to move forward with its commitment to end all settlement activities and completely lift the embargo over the Gaza Strip,” Abbas said.
Netanyahu said “a genuine peace must take into account the security needs of Israel”.
Near the West Bank town of Hebron, four Israeli settlers were shot dead in an ambush on Tuesday, and the next day two Israelis were wounded by gunshots on the West Bank.
Hamas, the armed wing of the Palestinian Islamist movement which controls the Gaza Strip, said it carried out both attacks.
Excluded from the talks because its authority is not recognised by Israel, the US or the European Union, Hamas has promised to continue to target Israelis.
The BBC’s Jon Donnison in the Gaza Strip says that as the peace talks get under way, Hamas seems to be sending out a message that it is not to be ignored. He added that it is hard to see how there can be peace between Israelis and Palestinians, unless Fatah and Hamas sort out their differences first.
Jordan’s King Abdullah and Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak are also attending the talks.
At the end of Thursday’s negotiations, US Middle East envoy George Mitchell is expected to give a briefing on the outcome.
In this first round US officials have said that they want to at least get an agreement from the two sides to meet again, possibly in the second week of September.
The UN General Assembly at the end of the month could also be the time for another meeting between Obama, Abbas and Netanyahu.