Obama wades into new Mideast talks

President Barack Obama on Tuesday lent his weight to a fresh American initiative to hammer out a Middle East peace deal, meeting with Israeli and Palestinian negotiators.

Obama, who travelled to Israel in March for his first visit to the region as president, met with Israeli Justice Minister and chief negotiator Tzipi Livni and her Palestinian counterpart Saeb Erakat.

It was not immediately clear if US Secretary of State John Kerry, who over six months of grueling shuttle diplomacy has cajoled the two sides back to the negotiating table after a three-year hiatus, was also attending.

Earlier Tuesday, Livni and Erakat met at the State Department for bilateral talks as moves to push the peace negotiations forward gather steam.

Kerry had broken the ice late Monday by hosting an iftar dinner at which Livni and Erakat sat side-by-side to break bread at the end of the Muslim day of fasting for Ramadan.

Livni said the mood at the dinner, held in sumptuous rooms in the State Department, had been "positive."

"All issues are on the table, but we decided that what was said will stay in the negotiating room and will not go outside," she told Israeli public radio.

Both she and Erakat left at the end of the 90-minute feast refusing to answer reporters' questions.

Livni said the talks were resuming "not just in response to US pressure but because it's in the interest of both parties."

However, Livni admitted that disagreements within Israel's right-leaning governing coalition could pose an obstacle to any deal.

A State Department official said the Monday night talks had been "constructive and productive," adding that the two sides "engaged in good faith and with seriousness of purpose."

Israel and the Palestinians remain deeply divided over so-called "final status issues" -- including the fate of Jerusalem, claimed by both as a capital, the right of return for Palestinian refugees, and the borders of a future Palestinian state complicated by dozens of Jewish settlements scattered across the occupied West Bank.

Kerry was later Tuesday to host a three-way meeting at the State Department before making a statement to reporters.

Officials have said the opening talks are meant to set out procedures and an agenda for going forward, and will not go into the thorny details of such issues as borders and refugees.

Kerry was flanked at the iftar dinner by seasoned diplomat Martin Indyk, whom he named Monday as the US special envoy to the talks, and who is expected to take over the day-to-day work of keeping them on track.

Obama's last foray into the intractable Arab-Israeli conflict ended in failure, when talks launched in September 2010 collapsed just weeks later over continued Israeli settlement building.

But he has welcomed the start of new talks as a "promising step" forward, and promised US support as the two sides mull the "hard choices" facing them.

"The most difficult work of these negotiations is ahead, and I am hopeful that both the Israelis and Palestinians will approach these talks in good faith," Obama said Monday.

Kerry also warned on Monday that "many difficult choices lie ahead for the negotiators and for the leaders as we seek reasonable compromises on tough, complicated, emotional and symbolic issues."

The two sides have agreed to continue talking for at least nine months, a State Department official said, cautioning though that this was not a deadline.

In a sign of the continued hostilities, a rocket fired from the Hamas-run Gaza Strip hit southern Israel early Tuesday but caused no casualties.

The Islamist militant group Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, is deeply opposed to the resumed talks, but has observed an informal truce with Israel since November.

Commentators have meanwhile questioned Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's motives and what concessions he would be willing to make after his government approved the contentious release of some 104 long-serving Palestinian prisoners.

"The question is whether Netanyahu is happy with simply holding negotiations or if he really wants to reach a peace accord," Israeli public radio presenter Chico Menache said.

"It's difficult to know if he's ready to make territorial concessions on Israeli settlements."