"I am hopeful, cautiously hopeful, but hopeful," Obama said with the leaders of Jordan, Egypt, Israel and the Palestinians beside him in the crowded East Room of the White House. Earlier Obama had met with each individually, and they gathered afterward for dinner.
Shadowed by fresh violence in the region, the leaders solemnly commenced the talks aimed at creating a sovereign Palestinian state beside a secure Israel.
"Do we have the wisdom and the courage to walk the path of peace?" Obama asked.
In turn, each of the leaders answered positively but with qualifications. And they spoke of hopes for a breakthrough within the one-year timeframe prescribed by Obama.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said his nation desires a lasting peace, not an interlude between wars. He called Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas "my partner in peace," and said, "Everybody loses if there is no peace."
Abbas urged Israel to freeze settlement construction in areas the Palestinians want as part of their new state, and to end its blockade of Gaza, which is controlled by the militant Hamas movement. The settlements issue is a central obstacle to achieving a permanent peace.
"We will spare no effort and we will work diligently and tirelessly to ensure these negotiations achieve their cause," Abbas said, as translated into English.
With the Israelis and Palestinians far apart on key issues, expectations for the Washington talks are low, yet the stakes are high.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a constant source of grievance and unrest in the Muslim world. The failure of past peace efforts has left both sides with rigid demands and public ambivalence about the value of a negotiated settlement.
American officials are hopeful they can at least get the two sides this week to agree to a second round of talks, likely to be held in the second week of September. That could be followed by another meeting between Obama, Netanyahu and Abbas on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly near the end of the month in New York.
Said Jordan's King Abdullah II: "Mr. President, we need your support as a mediator, honest broker and a partner. If hopes are disappointed again, the price of failure will be too high for all."
Each of the leaders pledged to work diligently toward peace, but they also made plain that their own national interests must be satisfied.
"We do not seek a temporary respite between outbursts of terror," said Netanyahu. And he stressed the central importance of security assurances for the Jewish state as part of any land-for-peace agreement with the Palestinians.
"We left Lebanon, we got terror. We left Gaza, we got terror. We want to ensure that territory we concede will not be turned into a third Iranian-sponsored terror enclave aimed at the heart of Israel," Netanyahu said. Peace, he added, must "end the conflict between us once and for all."