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Analysis: Obama takes his turn at elusive Mideast peace

WASHINGTON - We've been here before and if history is a guide, we'll be here again.

President Barack Obama is aiming for the prize that has eluded many U.S. presidents before him: a deal to form an independent Palestinian state and end six decades of conflict in one of the world's most volatile regions.

Obama will bring the Israeli and Palestinian leaders to Washington next month for a symbolic handshake and the start, yet again, of a new round of peace talks. The ambitious goal: a peace deal within a year.

The talks make good on an Obama campaign promise to confront the festering conflict early in his presidency, instead of deferring the peace broker's role as former President George W. Bush did.

The negotiations also saddle Obama with one of the globe's thorniest problems just when many other difficulties confront him, from a jobless economic recovery to probable election losses in the fall.

Every president for three decades has at least dipped a toe in the swirling currents of Mideast peace, usually with little to show for it. The latest round of direct talks gets under way Sept. 2.

The United States is considered an essential agent of any workable deal, if only because Washington is Israel's closest ally and main defender.

This time, it is not clear whether the United States would eventually draft its own peace plan or remain primarily a referee. Also unclear is whether Obama would convene his own high-stakes peace summit, in the mold of Camp David meetings that succeeded under President Jimmy Carter but failed under President Bill Clinton.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is a hawkish leader beholden to even more hawkish political elements that make up his governing coalition. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is a weak leader whose very willingness to entertain new talks further erodes his credibility among disaffected Palestinians.

The last direct talks were in November 2007, near the end of the Bush administration. They broke down after Israel's 2008 military operation in Gaza and seemed even more remote upon Netanyahu's election last year on a much tougher platform than his predecessor's.

Still, like presidents before him, Obama is following the line that in the Mideast, standing still means you are going backward.

Are Netanyahu and Abbas ready to give it a real shot?

Is Obama prepared to get his hands dirty?

"You answer both those questions 'yes,' and we're in business," said Aaron David Miller, who advised six secretaries of state on Mideast peace issues. "You answer with one 'no,' and you may as well hang a closed for business sign on the peace talks."

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