Secretary of State Hillary Clinton today stepped into the international spotlight, assuming the day-to-day responsibility of trying to broker a Mideast peace that has eluded her predecessors for decades.
Seated between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at the State Department, Clinton heralded the first direct negotiations between the parties in nearly two years.
Whether both sides can overcome a history of failed negotiations and dashed hopes will depend in large part on the individual leaders making difficult concessions, Clinton said.
"We cannot and will not impose a solution. Only you can make the decisions necessary to reach an agreement and secure a peaceful future for the Israeli and Palestinian people," she said.
After several hours of talks, both sides agreed to produce a framework for a permanent peace deal and hold a second round of direct negotiations in Egypt on Sept. 14 and 15. Clinton and U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell are expected to attend.
"We will put our full weight behind these negotiations and will stand by the parties as they make the difficult decisions necessary to secure a better future for their citizens," said Mitchell as the talks were underway. "I believe these two leaders...are committed to doing what it takes to achieve the right results."
But experts say success in the months ahead will also depend on Clinton's skill as a diplomat and mediator.
Earlier Thursday,Clinton appeared to embrace the opportunity and the symbolism of the moment – speaking slowly and authoritatively, embracing her partners on both sides, and reminding the world of the difficulties to be expected on the road ahead.
"Those who oppose the cause of peace will try in every way possible to sabotage this process, as we have already seen this week," she said, referring to the killing Tuesday of four Israeli civilians by Hamas.
"The core issues at the center of these negotiations -- territory, security, Jerusalem, refugees, settlements and others -- will get no easier if we wait, nor will they resolve themselves."
The talks, which also included Jordan's King Abdullah II and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, represent a formidable challenge for Clinton, who has spent months coaxing both sides back to the negotiating table.
They also raise the stakes for President Obama, who has set a goal of creating a two-state solution. He met with Netanyahu and Abbas in private sessions at the White House Wednesday and said he was "cautiously hopeful" a deal could be reached one year from now.
"I think she has credibility. Now whether that translates into diplomatic skills, I don't know," said Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat professor for peace and development at the University of Maryland. "Frankly, she's untested as a mediator."
Other observers see Clinton's experience as a politician as an asset because she will be able to not only discuss the policies but understand the politics of how Palestinian and Israeli leaders "sell" the negotiations to their peoples at home.