Israel, Palestinians to Open Direct Talks Sept. 2

Middle East Peace Talks
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks while Special Envoy for Middle East Peace Talks, Senator George Mitchell, listens during a briefing at the State Department in Washington, D.C. Secretary Clinton announced that leaders from Israel and Palestine have agreed to participate in peace talks. Photographer: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians will begin Sept. 2 in Washington, ending a 20-month standstill.

Clinton said she and President Barack Obama invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to Washington to meet face-to-face to formally open a fresh round of talks aimed at creating a Palestinian state and lasting peace in the region.

The purpose is to “resolve all final-status issues, which we believe can be completed in one year,” Clinton said today in Washington. “These negotiations should take place without preconditions,” she said.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and King Abdullah of Jordan will join the talks, Clinton said.

Issues to be resolved include the borders of the new state, security guarantees for Israel, the right of return for Palestinian refugees and the status of Jerusalem. Israel claims Jerusalem as its capital; the Palestinians want east Jerusalem, which Israel captured from Jordan in the 1967 Middle East war, to be the capital of a future state.

The U.S. had stepped up its effort to get the two sides talking to each other again. Clinton last week called Netanyahu to discuss the obstacles to renewing negotiations while U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell shuttled between Jerusalem and the West Bank city of Ramallah trying to mediate between the two sides.

All Issues on Table

Mitchell was with Clinton today at the State Department when she issued her statement.

“ All permanent status issues will be on the table” when the two sides convene in Washington, Mitchell told reporters after Clinton’s statement.

“We are all well aware that there remains mistrust between the parties, a residue of hostility developed over many decades of conflict,” Mitchell said. The talks will proceed “with patience, perseverance and determination.” He said he thought the two leaders “are sincere and serious and believe that it can be done.”

“I believe that an agreement with Israel is doable,” chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat said by phone from his West Bank home in Jericho. “I hope that Mr. Netanyahu will be our partner. I hope he will stop building settlements and give peace a chance.”

Building Settlements

An obstacle to resuming talks has been disagreement over Israel’s continuing construction of settlements in the land occupied after the 1967 war.

The Palestinians refused to meet Netanyahu for peace talks until Israel froze all settlement construction in the West Bank.

Netanyahu declared a 10-month moratorium on building in settlements last November that is set to expire Sept. 26. The freeze excluded public buildings, such as kindergartens, and some 3,000 housing units that previously received government approval.

The Israeli leader, who wanted to engage in talks with no preconditions, has also said the government would continue to build in all areas of Jerusalem.

Talks Suspended in 2008

Direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations were suspended when Israel launched a military operation in the Gaza Strip in December 2008 in what it said was an attempt to stop rocket attacks from the Hamas-controlled territory on its southern towns and cities.

The Islamic movement, which is considered a terrorist organization by the U.S., the European Union and Israel, fired about 3,200 rockets and mortars into Israel in 2008, according to the Israeli army.

Hamas seized full control of Gaza in 2007 after winning parliamentary elections the previous year, ending a partnership government with Abbas’s Fatah party.

Clinton’s announcement today was followed immediately by a statement from the so-called Mideast Quartet -- the U.S., Russia, the United Nations and the European Union -- saying they “reaffirm their strong support for direct negotiations.”

“The Quartet again calls on both sides to observe calm and restraint, and to refrain from provocative actions and inflammatory rhetoric,” said the statement issued by the UN.

Clinton said the Quartet’s representative, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, would join Netanyahu, Abbas, Mubarak and Abdullah at a dinner hosted by Obama in Washington on Sept. 1, the eve of the resumption of bilateral talks.

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