WASHINGTON, Aug 20 (Reuters) - US President Barack Obama scored a fragile diplomatic victory on Friday as Israel
and the Palestinians indicated they were ready to resume direct peace talks in Washington on Sept. 2.
But the way forward is uncertain and Obama faces risks that any new setback could poison U.S. ties with the Muslim world and strain relations with Israel as Washington seeks a united front on issues including the struggle against Islamic extremists and efforts to contain Iran's nuclear ambitions.
The United States has been pressing hard for direct negotiations to resume. U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell has shuttled between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas
for months to resolve differences.
Obama wanted the talks under way before Sept. 26, when Israel's 10-month moratorium on West Bank settlement
construction is due to end. Any full-scale resumption of settlement building could torpedo negotiations for good.
Netanyahu has said he was ready for direct talks but said there should be no preconditions attached -- a position echoed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Friday.
Abbas, on the other hand, insisted on and received a parallel statement by the quartet of Middle East peace mediators -- the United States, Russia, the United Nations and the European Union -- that Palestinians say lays out an agenda for the talks and repeats earlier calls on Israel to halt Jewish settlement building on occupied land.
WHAT IS THE GOAL?
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wants the talks to produce a deal within 12 months that would ultimately end Israeli occupation and establish an independent, democratic and viable Palestinian state.
The quartet, which issued its own invitation to the Washington talks, said the negotiations should be accompanied by a drive to build up the fledgling Palestinian state, which could require U.S. pressure on its Arab allies to step up their financial commitments to the cash-strapped Palestinian Authority
The United States hopes a deal between Israel and the Palestinians will open the door to a comprehensive regional peace agreement that could involve Syria, Lebanon and Jordan resolving a diplomatic conundrum that has bedeviled successive U.S. administrations for more than 50 years.
Obama invited both Jordan's King Abdullah and Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak to attend the Washington summit, a sign that US officials are hoping for a broader regional buy-in to the new peace effort.
WHAT ARE THE PROSPECTS?
Murky. Israeli and Palestinian negotiators have come to the table repeatedly since the early 1990s but in each case early hopes for progress collapsed.
Abbas broke off the last effort in 2008 after the Gaza war
, and the two sides remain far apart on key issues including competing claims on Jerusalem
as the capital, a fair settlement for Palestinian refugees, the fate of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and whether Israel would be able to patrol the international borders of a future Palestinian state.
But there are real pressures on both sides to get the process on track. Obama will signal his personal involvement by meeting individually with Abbas and Netanyahu before the talks formally begin.
WHAT'S NEXT FOR OBAMA?
The prospect of resuming long-stalled negotiations is a welcome coup for Obama, who hopes that resolving the impasse between Israel and the Palestinians will bolster his drive to repair US relations with the Muslim world, which have been tested by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But with every step forward comes the possibility of a step back, and the US administration will watch warily for signs that either the Israelis or the Palestinians are ready to pull the plug if talks drag on without resolution.
US relations with Israel have been rocky since Obama took office, and the US administration is entering a delicate period with U.S. congressional elections looming in November and pro-Israel sentiment strong among American lawmakers and voters.
Obama needs Israel's help not only to forge a regional peace but also to maintain the careful international approach to Iran, which both Israel and major Western powers suspect is seeking to develop atomic weapons.
The United States has led a successful push to impose sanctions on Tehran, which says its nuclear program is purely for peaceful purposes.
But Israel -- assumed to have its own atomic arsenal -- has hinted at military strikes as a last resort to deny Iran the means to make a nuclear bomb, a move that could draw the United States into an unplanned confrontation that could jeopardize US interests around the world.