With a diplomatic push from US President Barack Obama, Israeli and Palestinian leaders start direct peace talks today overshadowed by scepticism on all sides and violence in the volatile West Bank.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will meet at the State Department, relaunching talks after a 20-month hiatus and seeking a deal within one year that will set up an independent Palestinian state side-by-side with a secure Israel.
Obama, who has staked considerable political capital on the Washington talks during a pivotal US congressional election year, urged both sides to grasp the chance for peace after separate meetings at the White House yesterday.
"This moment of opportunity may not soon come again. They cannot afford to let it slip away," Obama said after a day of personal diplomacy on a problem that has confounded generations of US leaders.
But opponents of a settlement and the concessions that would be required to reach it threatened to sabotage the talks.
In Gaza, Hamas said its militants would keep on attacking Israelis in West Bank settlements, where Palestinian police have rounded up more than 500 Hamas suspects after a member of the Islamist group shot dead four Jewish settlers on Tuesday.
"Mahmoud Abbas does not have the right to speak for the Palestinians," said a Hamas spokesman.
Jewish settlers announced plans to launch new construction immediately in their West Bank enclaves, defying the Israeli government's moratorium which has three more weeks to run.
A settlers spokeswoman said the freeze was over and building would resume in 80 settlements without further delay. A spokesman for the Palestinians said Israel must stop any activity aimed at "sabotaging the peace efforts".
The issue of settlements looms large over the peace talks. Abbas has warned he will walk out unless Israel extends its self-imposed moratorium before it expires on 26 September.
Today will see both sides get down to business after the pomp of their White House reception. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will host the State Department talks.
US Mideast peace envoy George Mitchell, who has been shuttling between the two camps for months to lay down the parameters for the negotiations, will give a public briefing after talks conclude to explain what - if anything - has been accomplished.