President Barack Obama said Monday as he met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that a Middle East peace solution remains elusive, with U.S.-brokered talks between Israelis and Palestinians set to expire next month in the absence of any accord.
But Obama said he is still clinging to hope for progress in the coming days and weeks.
The talks are aimed at creating an independent Palestinian state and ending decades of conflict. But despite almost nine months of meetings, there has been no sign of progress.
Obama said that all sides understand what the outlines of a peace deal would look like, but that achieving it will still be daunting. It remains an "elusive goal," he added in comments accompanying the meeting.
Abbas – whose visit to Washington comes amid some unusually harsh public accusations that he is too willing to compromise on the Palestinian position – responded by saying he considers this a historic opportunity. He also thanked Obama for economic and political support.
The U.S. president said that the coming discussions would involve "very hard, very challenging, tough political decisions and risks," and that he would place an emphasis on “the importance of rule of law" and "transparency."
Abbas had complained last week that he had come under great duress during U.S.-brokered talks. Adding to the usual diplomatic concerns, Abbas was fiercely criticized over the weekend by an exiled rival, Mohammed Dahlan, who lambasted his ally-turned-foe in a two-hour interview with Egyptian television on Sunday.
The interview sent shockwaves through the Palestinian territories, where people are not used to seeing such political acrimony played out on their televisions screens. Abbas supporters rallied in a number of towns across the occupied West Bank.
"We support you, we are with you," demonstrators chanted. "Our choice is our leadership, the protector of our national project."
Abbas also faced scathing criticism from other Palestinian political leaders on Monday.
"As Mahmoud Abbas left his meeting with U.S. president Barack Obama today, did he reflect on the lessons of seeking peace without power?" said Nadia Hijab, director of Al-Shabaka: The Palestinian Policy Network and a senior fellow at The Institute for Palestine Studies.
"Did he regret securing Palestine’s upgraded status as a non-member observer state of the United Nations but then freezing its moves to join other U.N. organizations or the International Criminal Court in favor of yet more U.S.-mediated negotiations that only result in increased pressure for Palestinian concessions?"
Mustafa Barghouthi, a leading figure in Palestinian civil society, and a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s central council, was equally critical.
"As long as the U.S. is incapable of exercising pressure on Israel there will be no peace in the Middle East," Barghouthi said.
The primary focus of Monday's protests was efforts by the U.S. to secure a framework deal between Israelis and Palestinians that will extend the current negotiations beyond the initial end-of-April deadline.
Abbas has said he will not agree to demands being made by the Israelis, including that he should recognize Israel as a Jewish state. "I am 79 years old and am not ready to end my life with treason," he said last week.
Waving Palestinian flags, supporters in Jenin, Ramallah, Nablus, Hebron and Jericho said they backed Abbas's stance.
"These rallies send clear messages that the Palestinian people are committed to their constant rights and will never concede them," said Fatah Central Committee member Mahmoud Al-Aloul during the rally in Ramallah.
But Dahlan, who is believed to harbor ambitions to succeed Abbas as president, scoffed at the idea that the Palestinian president would remain faithful to his uncompromising rhetoric.
"(Abbas) we all know that you are going there (to Washington) only to extend the negotiations," Dahlan, a frequent guest of the Bush White House, told Egyptian television.
Witnesses said supporters of Dahlan and Abbas came to blows during a protest in the Gaza Strip, prompting the intervention of security forces in the small coastal enclave controlled by the Islamist group Hamas.
Al Jazeera and wire services