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Obama meets with negotiators as Israel and Palestinians resume peace talks

US President Barack Obama has met privately with Israeli and Palestinian negotiators. Direct talks between Israelis and Palestinians began Monday with a dinner in Washington, DC.

Obama "is meeting with the lead negotiators for both sides this morning," A Whitehouse official told the AFP news agency Tuesday.

The talks resumed Monday at the Washington dinner after six months of diplomacy. The last earnest negotiations broke down in 2008 and a later attempt to restart talks in 2010 broke down after just one day.

"I think we are starting talks out of a deep belief that it is in the interest of both sides and I really hope that it will continue that way," Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who is serving as her country's chief negotiator, told media, adding that there was a "good environment" at the dinner.

"I mainly believe that giving up is not an option for us," said Livni, a former foreign minister. "This is an Israeli interest."

Representing the Palestinian delegation is Saeb Erekat, who served as the chief negotiator in previous negotiations. He was joined by Mohammed Shtayyeh, an advisor to President Mahmoud Abbas also on hand for previous talks with Israeli officials.

Also in attendance was US Secretary of State John Kerry and newly appointed special envoy Martin Indyk, a former US ambassador to Israel

The Iftar dinner, which broke the day of fasting during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, lasted about 90 minutes. Negotiators sat at a rectangular table - five US officials lining one side and the two Israeli and two Palestinian negotiators on the other.

"We're happy to welcome you," Kerry said. "It's really wonderful to have you here - very, very special. We have, obviously, not much to talk about at all," the US secretary of state added jokingly.

Indyk named special US envoy

Announcing Indyk's appointment during a press conference on Monday, Kerry said the diplomat would take on the difficult task of attempting to guide both sides to a fully-fledged peace deal. The secretary of state added that Indyk had the respect and confidence of all involved.

Watch video 01:54

Israelis, Palestinians face to face

"To help the parties navigate the path to peace and to avoid as many pitfalls, we'll be very fortunate to have on our team on a day-to-day basis, working with the parties wherever they are negotiating, a seasoned American diplomat, Ambassador Martin Indyk," Kerry said.

"It's no secret that this is a difficult process: If it were easy, it would have happened a long time ago," he added. "It's no secret therefore that many difficult choices lie ahead for the negotiators and for the leaders as we seek reasonable compromises on tough, complicated and symbolic issues."

Indyk, 62, will take leave from his current position as vice president and foreign policy director at the Washington-based think tank the Brookings Institution. He previously served as former President Bill Clinton's ambassador to Israel during which time he took part in the failed 2000 Camp David peace talks between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Standing alongside Kerry on Monday, Indyk said his new role "was a daunting and humbling challenge but one I cannot desist from."

On Sunday, the Knesset, Israel's parliament, voted to free 104 long-held Palestinian prisoners in four stages linked to progress in the talks, which negotiators expect to last nine months. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took heavy criticism from conservatives and the families of those killed by some of the prisoners. One protester outside Netanyahu's office held a sign depicting a prison release form that was stamped with handprints made of red paint to symbolize blood.

mkg,dr/ccp (Reuters, AFP, dpa, AP)

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