Two decades after Israelis and Palestinians signed their historic first accord and three years after negotiations last broke down, the sides will sit down in Washington today to try to clinch an elusive peace.
Representatives of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are scheduled to hold initial discussions this evening and tomorrow in Washington, Jen Psaki, a U.S. State Department spokeswoman, said yesterday. The terms of negotiations were hammered out by Secretary of State John Kerry in months of intense shuttle diplomacy and have not been disclosed.
“We want to establish a Palestinian state beside the state of Israel, living in peace and friendship and bringing an end to the conflict,” Israeli President Shimon Peres said today on a visit to the Latvian capital of Riga.
Netanyahu said the peace effort will last nine months. His cabinet cleared the way to resuming talks when it voted yesterday to approve the release 104 Palestinian prisoners, a step long sought by Abbas.
“We are entering into new negotiations that are very complex, very complicated, in a region that is very, very difficult,” Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who will lead her country’s negotiating team, said in comments broadcast today on Army Radio. “The situation in the region is changing, there are many threats, we are getting under way cautiously, but also with hope.”
Livni and fellow Israeli negotiator Yitzhak Molcho were scheduled to meet with United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in New York today before heading to Washington.
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat welcomed Israel’s agreement to release prisoners while saying thousands more remain in Israeli jails and must be freed.
“We call upon Israel to seize the opportunity” created by Kerry “in order to put an end to decades of occupation and exile, and to start a new stage of justice, freedom and peace for Israel, Palestine and the rest of the region,” Erekat said.
Negotiations are resuming almost 20 years after Israeli and Palestinian leaders signed the Oslo peace accords in a White House ceremony, buoying Palestinians’ hopes of winning an independent state on land Israel captured in 1967. Instead, talks have proceeded in fits and starts, and thousands of people have been killed in periodic waves of violence. The plan to give Palestinians partial sovereignty for five years has lasted for two decades.
In the meantime, the Palestinians have ruptured into dueling entities, one governed by the West Bank-based Abbas, the other by Islamist Hamas militants in Gaza who do not recognize Israel’s right to exist. Israel and the U.S. shun Hamas as a terrorist organization and it will not take part in the talks, which it has denounced.
Kerry has made Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking a priority, making six trips to the region in as many months. He called Abbas over the weekend to emphasize President Barack Obama’s support for a prompt return to negotiations, the Palestinian Wafa news agency said.
Netanyahu swept away the last hurdle yesterday when he overcame opposition within his cabinet to the release of jailed Palestinians.
“This moment isn’t easy for me, it’s not easy for the cabinet and it is especially not easy for the grieving families,” Netanyahu said in a text message after the vote. “But there are times when one must make difficult decisions for the good of the country and this is one of those moments.”
In a rare open message to Israeli citizens before the vote, Netanyahu said upheaval in Egypt, Syria and Iran confront Israel with both challenges and “considerable opportunities.” Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who heads the Israeli negotiators, said they’re approaching the talks “cautiously, but also with hope.”
Peace talks broke down in September 2010, when Netanyahu declined to extend a partial settlement construction freeze in the West Bank. Abbas refused to negotiate unless the building was halted, saying it was designed to entrench Israel’s presence there and was a sign of bad faith. Netanyahu said talks shouldn’t be subject to conditions.