Israeli and Palestinian leaders began direct peace negotiations on Thursday, saying it was time to end their conflict but projecting tough talks ahead as hardliners on both sides vowed never to accept a deal. One day after US President Barack Obama made a personal appeal for peace, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton welcomed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to the State Department to begin talks aimed at establishing an independent Palestinian state. “This will not be easy,” Netanyahu said. “A true peace, a lasting peace, (would) be achieved only with mutual and painful concessions from both sides.” Netanyahu said Israel was ready to go a long way in a short time to reach a peaceful solution to the decades-long conflict, which Obama has signalled is a top priority for his administration. Abbas called on Israel to end the blockade of the Gaza Strip and stop settlement activity — a potential roadblock to any deal. About half a million Jewish settlers live in communities scattered all over the West Bank that have the protection of Israeli armed forces.