U.S. President Barack Obama is to host a dinner Wednesday for Israeli and Palestinian leaders, as well as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan's King Abdullah. The following day at the State Department, Israelis and Palestinians are to hold their first face-to-face peace negotiations in nearly two years.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas agreed to meet after months of pressure from the Obama administration, which considers the Middle East peace process one of its highest foreign policy priorities.
The Palestinians want a state in areas that Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East War, with East Jerusalem as its capital. Mr. Netanyahu has accepted the idea of a Palestinian state, but with significant conditions and without East Jerusalem.
Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland, said time is running out on the proposed two-state solution.
"We are at the end of the line on the two-state solution," said Telhami. "Separate from America's role, I think we are running out of time. It is either going to happen or not. And if it does not happen on this administration's clock, we are really into a whole new ball game in the region."
A critical first test for the new peace talks could come later this month. Israel's 10-month moratorium on Jewish settlement construction in the West Bank will expire September 26. Mr. Abbas said the talks will be called off if Israel fails to extend the freeze. Members of Mr. Netanyahu's ruling coalition have threatened to bring down his government if he allows the current moratorium to continue.
The director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy's Project on the Middle East Peace Process, David Makovsky, said the settlement issue is the most immediate challenge to the success of the talks.
"This is the short-term biggest problem right now and it is not sewn up," said Makovsky. "The United States has not been able to bridge those differences at this time."
U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell said the talks likely will move after the first meeting in Washington to a location in the region. He said the parties are set to discuss all issues, such as the future of Jerusalem and the status of Palestinian refugees. Mitchell said the United States is ready to offer compromise ideas, or bridging proposals, as the talks proceed.
Professor Shibley Telhami cautioned, "If you leave Israelis and Palestinians without aggressive mediation, meaning putting ideas on the table to deal with final status issues in the state of affairs that they are in, there is no chance of an agreement."
Since the 1993 Oslo Accords formally launched the peace process, various Palestinian-Israeli summits have failed to produce a final agreement.
New America Foundation Middle East Task Force co-director Amjad Atallah says the talks will be viewed as a referendum on the ability of the United States to influence events in the region.
"If the United States cannot resolve it, does this mean for the majority of the Arab world and the Muslim world, effectively that the United States is a spent force," Atallah asked.
The new negotiations will not include the militant group Hamas, which opposes peace efforts. Hamas controls the Gaza Strip and is considered a terrorist organization by the United States and other nations.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton acknowledges that difficulties can be expected.
"Without a doubt we will hit more obstacles. The enemies of peace will keep trying to defeat us and to derail these talks. But I ask the parties to persevere, to keep moving forward even through difficult times, and to continue working to achieve a just and lasting peace in the region," she said.
Secretary Clinton says the goal of the negotiations is to reach an agreement within a year.