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Obama lays out vision for Middle East peace

Calling the status quo between Israel and the Palestinian Authority "unsustainable," President Obama today urged leaders from both sides to seize a moment of opportunity to reach a peace agreement as they begin direct talks in D.C. tomorrow.

The president spoke to reporters in the Rose Garden after holding four separate bilateral meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, King Abdullah II of Jordan, and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Both Egypt and Jordan have reached peace agreements with Israel.

Flanked by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former Sen. George Mitchell, special envoy to the Middle East, Obama said the U.S. would actively and aggressively seek a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians and a comprehensive peace between Israel and all of its Arab neighbors.

The president spelled out the aim of the direct talks that will be led by Clinton. "Our goal is a two-state solution that ends the conflict and ensures the rights and security of both Israelis and Palestinians and despite the inevitable challenges we have never wavered in pursuit of this goal," he said, adding that both sides had taken "important steps" to build confidence over the last year.

The relaunch of direct talks after nearly two years comes amid news of the murder of four Israeli settlers by Hamas gunmen in the West Bank town of Hebron -- violence which Obama, Netanyahu, and Abbas condemned. Israeli settlement construction on occupied territory has remained a thorny matter between the two sides as they seek to reach an agreement on final status issues.

"The goal is a settlement negotiated between the parties that ends the occupation, which began in 1967 and results in the emergence of an independent, democratic and viable Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security with a Jewish state of Israel and its other neighbors," Obama said. "That's the vision we are pursuing."

He went on to acknowledge this latest round of negotiations would be met with skepticism, saying the parties were "under no illusions," that years of mistrust would not disappear overnight, and that building confidence between the parties would require "painstaking diplomacy. But Obama also said that peace was in the national interests of Israel, the Palestinians, the United States, the region, and the world.

"The hard work is only beginning," Obama said. "Neither success nor failure is inevitable. But this much we know: if we do not make the attempt then failure is guaranteed."

The president will hold a working dinner with the four leaders at the White House tonight. They will be joined by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Secretary of State Clinton.