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Originally published May 25, 2013 at 4:24 AM | Page modified May 26, 2013 at 2:11 PM

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Israel's president calls for return to peace talks

Israel's president on Sunday urged Israeli and Palestinian leaders to overcome differences and resume peace negotiations, saying the sides could not afford "to lose this opportunity."

Associated Press

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SOUTHERN SHUNEH, Jordan —

Israel's president on Sunday urged Israeli and Palestinian leaders to overcome differences and resume peace negotiations, saying the sides could not afford "to lose this opportunity."

President Shimon Peres issued his call ahead of a gathering of Mideast leaders on the sidelines of a conference hosted by the Geneva-based World Economic Forum on the shores of the Dead Sea in Jordan.

Sunday's conference included a rare face-to-face meeting between Israeli and Palestinian leaders, with the participation of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who has devoted much of the past two months to restarting long-stalled peace talks.

"We shouldn't lose the opportunity because it will be replaced by a great disappointment," Peres told reporters in Jordan. "For my experience, I believe it's possible to overcome it. It doesn't require too much time."

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas agreed.

"Enough is enough. A lot of our young people have started to lose confidence in the two-state solution," he said to a loud applause from an audience of more than 1,000 business and government leaders from 23 countries worldwide.

He blamed the growing mistrust on Israeli moves, essentially construction in West Bank settlements and detention of hundreds of Palestinians.

Abbas reiterated his rejection of partial solutions. "We will neither accept interim solutions, nor a state with temporary borders or a peace based on economic perks without progress on the political track," he said.

At one point in the closing session, Kerry joked with Abbas and Peres - who exchanged hugs, kisses, handshakes and emotional speeches - telling both from the podium that he had an "agreement you can come up and sign."

Abbas peeked at Peres, pointing to the podium. Then both laughed.

Palestinian-Israeli peace talks broke down nearly five years ago, in large part due to disagreements over Israeli settlement construction on occupied territories claimed by the Palestinians. The Palestinians say there is no point in negotiating while Israel continues to build Jewish settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, which they say undermines their quest to set up an independent state. The Palestinians want both areas, captured by Israel in 1967, as parts of their state.

On his fourth visit to the Middle East since taking office in February, Kerry held talks with Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week. He said during his latest regional swing that both sides must make hard decisions to move toward direct negotiations.

Peres, who won the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize for helping forge an interim deal with the Palestinians, sounded upbeat and determined to help in peacemaking with Palestinians.

"It is time for peace," he said. "I believe this is an important opportunity to (engage), not to waste time, return to negotiations and complete the negotiations with the Palestinians."

He said a peace agreement must be "based on a two state solution: an Israeli state, a Palestinian state living as good neighbors cooperating economically and bringing a message to the young generation."

For decades an ardent supporter of peace with the Palestinians, Peres holds a ceremonial role in Israel, and his views are highly respected in Israeli society. Netanyahu, who has most decision-making powers, holds more hawkish positions than Peres and has given few signs of how he sees a final peace deal with the Palestinians.

While Netanyahu has endorsed the concept of a two-state solution, the Palestinians accuse him of undermining that goal through his actions. In particular, they object to continued settlement construction and Netanyahu's refusal to endorse Israel's pre-1967 lines as the basis for a future border.

Netanyahu has called for resumption of peace talks without preconditions, saying all those issues would be on the table.

Israeli media reported that Peres discussed with Netanyahu some key issues he is expected to raise at Sunday's forum.

Earlier Sunday, a group of Israeli and Palestinian businessmen at the conference unveiled a plan to push their leaders to begin serious peace negotiations.

"We're using our collective business experience and influence to convince leaders on both sides that peace is a must," said Palestinian business tycoon Munib Masri.

Masri said he was leading the initiative, called "breaking the impasse," along with Israeli high-tech guru Yossi Vardi. He said they would lobby both sides to make peace.

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Associated Press writer Jamal Halaby contributed.

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