Church Leaders Press Obama on Mideast Peace Talks

Over two dozen Christian leaders are urging U.S. President Barack Obama and negotiators to continue their efforts in helping leaders of the State of Israel and the Palestinian Authority reach a peace agreement.

In a letter to Obama dated Monday, the 28 leaders said they were pleased by the success of Obama's diplomacy in bringing the prime minister of Israel and the president of the Palestinian Authority together in Washington this week to resume stalled peace talks.

"We fully support your goal of ending the occupation that began in 1967 and achieving a just, lasting and comprehensive peace with a viable Palestinian state living side by side with Israel in peace and security," stated the leaders, which included the heads of the National Council of Churches, the Reformed Church in America, the National Baptist Convention of America, and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

But the Christian leaders - brought together by the D.C.-based Churches for Middle East Peace - acknowledged the difficulty of the task ahead and the "deep convictions" both sides hold that are contrary to those held by the other.

"Although many issues have been clarified in past negotiations, major compromises by both sides will be needed at considerable political risk and cost," they added.

The U.S.-brokered negotiations, scheduled to start Thursday, will be the first in 20 months between the two sides.

While Palestinians aspire to an independent state in the territory that Israel conquered in the 1967 war, Israel maintains that the territory is disputed and has stressed its need for security. Key issues in the negotiations are borders and the fate of Jewish settlements on land Palestinians want for a future state.

In their letter Monday, the Christian leaders advised U.S. negotiators to "empower both sides to take risks for peace and when necessary to make proposals to bridge remaining differences."

"The United States must be clear that actions or words by either side in the coming year that undermine confidence in the negotiations, incite disrespect or prejudge the outcome of final status issues will not be tolerated," they added.

The leaders also said if an agreement is not reached within the coming year, as Obama hopes, "it may not be reachable at all."

"For that reason we call on you and your negotiating team to continue your vigilant efforts to help the parties find acceptable solutions," they told the president before pledging to support the peace effort by maintaining and expanding their dialogue on this issue with American Jewish and Palestinian communities.

"Mr. President, we are praying for you as you seek to bring God's justice and peace to a place torn by walls and weapons," the leaders concluded. "We are convinced that with your vigilant support this dream can be fulfilled, and the lives of Palestinians and Israelis, as well as U.S. national security interests, can be transformed for the better."

On Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton held separate discussions with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. On Wednesday, Abbas and Netanyahu will meet separately with Obama.

The following day, direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians will be formally relaunched in a ceremony at the State Department. Officials in Jerusalem say Netanyahu and Abbas also plan to meet alone while in Washington for an icebreaker.

In a briefing Tuesday with reporters in Washington, George J. Mitchell, Obama's special envoy to the Middle East, said the two-state solution "is so essential to comprehensive peace in the region."

"Difficult as it may be for both leaders, and we recognize that difficulty for both of them, the alternatives for them and the members of their societies pose far greater difficulties and far greater problems in the future," he added.

In 2007, President George W. Bush hosted a summit in Annapolis, Md., attended by dozens of foreign ministers to inaugurate Middle East talks that had been dormant for seven years. Since then, the economic and security climate in the West Bank have reportedly improved.

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