( dpa ) - Israeli and Palestinian negotiators met Monday for their first talks in seven years on the so-called core issues of the decades-old conflict.
In contrast to previous Israeli-negotiating sessions, there were no immediate leaks from the two-hour meeting, as the chief negotiators - Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni for the Israelis and former prime minister Ahmed Qureia for the Palestinians - have decided to keep the talks as far from the public eye as possible.
"The talks need to be conducted quietly and behind closed doors, so as not to raise expectations which will in the end lead to the failure of the negotiations and a renewal of violence," Livni said before the meeting got underway.
All Palestinian negotiate Saeb Erekat would say after Monday's session ended was that every effort would be exerted to make 2008 "the year of the treaty," in keeping with a pledge by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to try and reach a peace deal by the year's end.
The talk on the final status issues - the future of Jerusalem, the fate of Palestinian refugees and their descendents, security issues, and the borders of the future Palestinian state - are expected to be conducted every week or so.
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Ariye Mekel said any problems the negotiators were unable to agree on during the sessions would be referred to Olmert and Abbas, who are slated to meet every two or so weeks.
Monday's talks follow on from the visit to Israel and the Palestinian areas last week of US President George W Bush, who said that Olmert and Abbas had to ensure their respective negotiating teams "negotiate seriously, starting now."
The president also said he believed a deal could be in place by the time he left office.
The president's optimism generated some scepticism, since the core issues are considered potential deal-breakers.
The previous serious attempt to deal with them - at Camp David in July 2000 - ended without agreement and led to the outbreak of the Palestinian uprising in September of that year.
Negotiations at the Egyptian resort of Taba in early 2001 also broke off without result and the sides have not dealt with the core issues since.
Olmert himself told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee Monday that he was not sure it was possible to reach a deal, although "it is my duty to the State of Israel to try."
But the success of the talks - even the fact that they are being held - places the Israeli leader under political threat, with a hardline coalition partner threatening to bolt the government in protest.
Should Deputy Premier and Strategic Affairs Minister Avigdor Lieberman pull his Yisrael B'Teinu party out of the coalition, Olmert will be left at the helm of a coalition commanding 67 of the 120 seats in the Knesset.
This would enable him to survive, unless another coalition partner, the 12-seat ultra-Orthodox Shas party, makes good on its threat to leave the government to protest what it sees as Israeli concessions on Jerusalem.
Even if Olmert finds alternative coalition partners, the defections of Yisrael B'Teinu and Shas could significantly advance the momentum for early elections, with a concomitant effect on negotiations with the Palestinians.
Abbas too faces problems from his own electorate, and badly needs to show some achievement to shore up his standing in face of a concerted challenge from hardliners opposed to any concessions to - or holding peace talks - with Israel at all.
The Islamic Hamas movement, which won the 2006 Palestinian elections and rejects a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in favour of an Islamic state in all of historic Palestine, said Monday that the core-issue talks were "doomed to fail."
A Hamas statement from the Gaza Strip, which the movement has administered since routing pro-Abbas forces there in June last year, said the Islamist organization considers Monday's meeting, and other similar talks, as providing cover "for the Israeli occupation to carry on with its crimes committed against our people."
Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri called on Abbas and Qureia "to immediately stop trading with our people's rights and blood and stop such useless meetings with the enemy."