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Israeli and Palestinian leaders face critics of talks

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu returned Friday from the resumption of Mideast negotiations in Washington to confront internal opposition to his peace moves, just as his Palestinian counterpart faced harsh criticism for agreeing to the talks at all.

Analysts on both sides questioned the ability and desire of their leaders to negotiate a peace accord. And the militant Islamic Hamas group, from its stronghold in Gaza, rejected the talks as illegitimate.

Netanyahu arrived back home at midday Friday. He did not speak to reporters on his plane or at the airport.

In Washington, Netanyahu talked of creating a Palestinian state, a phrase he uttered for the first time just last year after strident opposition to the concept for two decades, and called for "mutual and painful concessions from both sides."

Most Israeli analysts admitted to not knowing what was really on Netanyahu's mind. Writing from Washington, veteran Yediot Ahronot columnist Nahum Barnea was uncharacteristically ambivalent.

"If this was just for show, Netanyahu played it well," Barnea wrote. "But perhaps this was not only a show. Not this time."

Netanyahu's Likud Party has been among the strongest backers of Israel keeping much or all of the West Bank and east Jerusalem and expanding Jewish settlements on land the Palestinians want for a future state. Netanyahu's coalition government is a patchwork of Likud, the moderate Labor, the hawkish secular Yisrael Beitenu and ultra-Orthodox Jewish Shas parties.

Concessions of the type Netanyahu indicated, like giving up parts of the West Bank, while not sufficient for the Palestinians, would likely bring down his government or force him to replace his hawkish partners with moderates.

Gilad Erdan, a Likud Cabinet minister, said Netanyahu would forge a middle path through the political obstacles. He told Israel Radio that Netanyahu is committed to keeping as much of the West Bank as possible while finding a solution for living with the Palestinians.

"But the prime minister, unlike previous leaders, will not sign fictitious agreements that instead of bringing peace, brought terrorism and led to thousands of rockets being fired at us," Erdan added. Those comments reflected his party's criticism of interim peace accords with the Palestinians and Israel's unilateral pullout from Gaza in 2005.

Palestinians in Gaza aimed a rocket at Israel overnight, the military said, but it fell short.

Palestinians want a state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem. President Mahmoud Abbas has threatened to pull out of the talks if Netanyahu does not extend a partial West Bank settlement construction freeze set to expire at the end of the month.

Palestinian political activist Mustafa Barghouti joined a demonstration against resumption of the talks, though he has supported peace efforts in the past. He charged that Israel's settlement construction is sabotaging chances for peace. "We fear that all sides are losing the last opportunity for a two-state solution" of a Palestinian state next to Israel.

"What we heard (in Washington) did not change our minds at all. On the contrary, it confirmed our suspicions" that there would be "endless talks that will hardly produce results," he told The Associated Press on Friday.

Barghouti said Abbas is in a weaker position now than any Palestinian leader who has opened peace talks with Israel because of internal opposition to his concessions from elements of Abbas' Palestine Liberation Organization as well as radicals like Hamas.

Alon Pinkas, a former Israeli diplomat, commented in the Maariv daily that neither leader has the courage to make the necessary compromises, though the outline of a peace accord is clear. Soon, he wrote, "Obama will understand that the process has run its course, and if the Israelis and Palestinians are unable to change their outlooks, perhaps the U.S. has to do it for them."

In Gaza, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said Abbas had no right to negotiate for the Palestinian people. "Therefore, any result and outcome of these talks does not commit us and does not commit our people, it only commits Abbas himself," he said.

Hamas, which does not recognize a place for a Jewish state in the predominantly Muslim Middle East, won Palestinian parliamentary elections in 2006 and overran Gaza in 2007, expelling forces loyal to Abbas. Before the Washington talks began, Hamas took responsibility for two drive-by shooting attacks in the West Bank that killed four Israelis and wounded two others, signaling that it cannot be ignored.