Attack overshadows Middle East talks

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Palestinian security forces have mounted a huge operation in the West Bank to catch the killers of four Israeli settlers shot on Tuesday. The killings came ahead of the first direct talks between Israeli and Palestinian leaders in two years. Officials are gathering in Washington for discussions, before the Israeli and Palestinian leaders meet on Thursday. Matthew Bell reports.

MARCO WERMAN: I'm Marco Werman. This is The World. President Obama welcomed Mideast negotiators to Washington today. He held separate meetings with the Israeli and Palestinian leaders, ahead of direct peace talks between the two sides tomorrow. Mr. Obama vowed that the talks will not be derailed by attacks like the one in the West Bank yesterday, which left four Israeli settlers dead.

BARACK OBAMA: There are going to be extremists and rejectionists who rather than seeking peace are going to be seeking destruction and the tragedy that we saw yesterday where people were gunned down on the street by terrorists who are purposely trying to undermine these talks is an example of what we're up against.

WERMAN: Hamas has claimed responsibility for the West Bank attack. And the main Jewish settler organization says it will break the Israeli government's freeze on settlement building in response to the killings. The World's Matthew Bell has more from Jerusalem.

MATTHEW BELL: Hundreds of mourners paid their respects at a funeral today for the four Israelis killed in yesterday's attack. The victims were two men and two women, one of whom was pregnant. They lived in a small Jewish settlement outside the West Bank city of Hebron. Israel's Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, says he'll send Israeli security forces to hunt down the murderers without ?diplomatic limitations.? Right-wing Israeli politicians are calling on Netanyahu to leave Washington, suspend the US-sponsored peace talks with the Palestinians and return home. Israel's Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor says yesterday's terrorist attack raises serious questions about the ability of the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, to deliver on a peace deal. But Meridor says that doesn't mean anyone should give up before talks start.

DAN MERIDOR: Hamas is not a partner. They say so and everybody says so, they don't want to be a partner to anything, they don't want peace. So, we talk with the PLO, which still is the leader of the Palestinian people and Mr. Abbas as their head. The negotiations starting today are of great importance. It is not one other attempt. Time may be running out for both sides.

BELL: Meridor says this is a zero sum game and if there's no final agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, both sides will pay a price.

MERIDOR: We have now a good security situation. For over a year, it's quite good and the economic situation is much better in the Palestinian areas and law and order is a bit better. So people may have delusions that this will go on indefinitely undisturbed for indefinite period of time. It's not right.

BELL: Palestinian security forces responded to yesterday's killings by arresting dozens of Hamas members in the West Bank. A lawmaker from Hamas said 250 of the group's members were detained by mid-day. But is that enough?

GERALD STEINBERG: Even if the Palestinians are making an effort in this area, it needs to be something that's sustained.

BELL: Gerald Steinberg is a professor of political science at Bar Ilan University. Steinberg says security is the foremost issue on the minds of Israelis right now. And if President Obama wants peace talks to succeed, he needs to demonstrate that he understands that.

STEINBERG: As president, I think Mr. Obama really has not engaged the Israeli public at all. He's been to Egypt, he gave a very important but apparently not very influential speech from Cairo. He has not come to Israel. There seems to be in Washington this view that somehow Prime Minister Netanyahu and his government are an aberration, that they're not a part and product and expression of the Israeli consensus.

BELL: The president is said to be planning a visit to Israel and the Palestinian Authority. And if it happens, he's got no less a challenge selling the idea of these peace talks to the Palestinians. Former negotiator Hanan Ashrawi says expectations are running at an all-time low.

HANAN ASHRAWI: People are either very skeptical or indifferent, or they're adamantly against. But I haven't seen anybody who's embraced this as an historical opportunity and a breakthrough. And I think that's because of previous experience, because of the expansion of settlement activities, annexation of Jerusalem, all the preconditions that Netanyahu has placed on the talks, all the unilateral actions particularly in Jerusalem and settlements that have taken place.

BELL: Jerusalem, settlements, refugees, water and so on. The business of Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy is a tangled web of complex issues. But there's a simple rule at work here as well. It takes only a few people willing to commit acts of extreme violence to change the conversation and cast a shadow over the whole process. For The World, I'm Matthew Bell in Jerusalem.