U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said that reaching “reasonable compromises” between Israelis and Palestinians in peace talks that open today will be difficult, while “the consequences of not trying could be worse.”
After months of prodding by Kerry, negotiators from the two sides plan to sit down with him over dinner at the State Department in Washington tonight, two decades after Israelis and Palestinians signed their historic first accord and three years after negotiations last broke down.
“Many difficult choices lie ahead for the negotiators and for the leaders as we seek reasonable compromises on tough, complicated, emotional and symbolic issues,” Kerry said today at the State Department, where he named veteran diplomat Martin Indyk as special envoy for the talks. “I think reasonable compromises has to be a keystone of all of this effort.”
Kerry is seeking to move beyond a legacy of inconclusive past U.S. efforts, the lull in direct peace talks and little public attention to the issue by President Barack Obama during his first term.
“It’s unclear what private assurances he’s gotten, or what strategy he has to blow this rather modest spark into a flame,” Jon Alterman, who heads the Mideast program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said today in an e-mailed comment. “In the current environment, Israeli and Palestinian publics both say they support peace, but neither thinks it is remotely possible to get a deal from the other side.”
Obama said in a statement today that “the most difficult work of these negotiations is ahead.”
“I am hopeful that both the Israelis and Palestinians will approach these talks in good faith and with sustained focus and determination,” Obama said. “The United States stands ready to support them throughout these negotiations, with the goal of achieving two states, living side by side in peace and security.”
Kerry announced today that Indyk, 62, who twice served as ambassador to Israel during President Bill Clinton’s administration, will become the special Mideast envoy handling the talks. His deputy will be Frank Lowenstein, a Kerry adviser who was chief of staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when Kerry was chairman.
In naming Indyk, currently vice president and director of foreign policy at the policy research center Brookings Institution in Washington, Kerry chose an experienced Mideast diplomat who has dealt with Palestinian leaders as well as the last seven Israeli prime ministers.
During the Clinton administration, Indyk became the first Jewish U.S. ambassador to Israel, serving from 1995 to 1997. He served a second term there from 2000 to 2001, and had stints on the White House National Security Council staff and as assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs.
He gave up his Australian citizenship to became a U.S. citizen in 1993 to join the Clinton administration. Before his government posts, he was the founding executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and was deputy research director at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a pro-Israel lobbying group.
Indyk has “spent most of his professional life on this issue” so “neither side will be able to outmaneuver” him, said David Makovsky, director of the Washington Institute’s Project on the Middle East Peace Process.
After Kerry hosts the dinner tonight with top representatives of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, talks are scheduled to continue tomorrow.
The initial meetings “will serve as an opportunity to develop a procedural workplan for how the parties can proceed with the negotiations in the coming months,” Jen Psaki, a State Department spokeswoman, said yesterday. The terms of negotiations were hammered out by Kerry in months of intense shuttle diplomacy and haven’t 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.
Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who will lead her country’s negotiating team, and fellow Israeli negotiator Yitzhak Molcho met with United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in New York today before heading to Washington.
“We are hopeful,” Livni told reporters afterward. “We believe that this is of mutual interest for Israel, for the Palestinians, the Arab world, the international community.”
“It’s going to be complicated, I’m sure,” she said. “But I believe when we see our troubled region, what we can do is to change the future of generations to come by having peace offered between Israel and the Palestinians.”
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. Hamas won’t 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 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.”
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.