The Obama administration started a nine-month countdown yesterday intended to help Israelis and Palestinians reach agreements on the thorniest issues in their decades-old conflict by the end of April.
Negotiators from both sides agreed to meet again within two weeks after talks with Secretary of State John Kerry and a visit at the White House with President Barack Obama, who threw his weight behind the effort as the first round of meetings ended.
Kerry said the two sides will convene again in Israel or the Palestinian territories for discussions on “all of the final-status issues.” Officials from the State Department and White House, who asked not to be identified discussing the closed-door deliberations, warned that the negotiators will have to cope with provocations meant to disrupt the talks’ progress.
“I know the path is difficult,” Kerry said yesterday, standing between Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat at the State Department. “There is no shortage of passionate skeptics.”
“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,” Jon Alterman, who heads the Mideast program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said in an e-mailed comment.
The State Department official said that Kerry has won a commitment from both sides to stick with the talks for at least nine months, regardless of the difficulties that might arise.
“Our goal is to achieve a final-status agreement over the next nine months,” Kerry said on July 29, as he brought Israelis and Palestinians together for the first direct talks in three years.
Both sides have made initial goodwill gestures to start building confidence among their publics and with each other. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet cleared the way to resuming talks when it voted July 28 to approve the phased release of 104 Palestinians that Israel considers terrorists and murderers, a step long sought by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
In return, Palestinians have agreed, for the time being, not to seek elevated status at the United Nations or take Israel to the International Criminal Court for its presence in the Palestinian territories. The State Department official said a freeze on Jewish settlements in the West Bank, which disrupted the last attempt at negotiations, isn’t part of the current agreement on talks. Israel captured the land from Jordan in the 1967 Six-Day War and Palestinians want it as part of an independent state.
The current talks began over a 90-minute dinner at the State Department. Obama’s conversation with Livni, Erekat and their colleagues yesterday lasted a little less than 30 minutes, White House press secretary Jay Carney said.
The president and his administration are seeking to move beyond a legacy of inconclusive U.S. efforts and little public attention to the issue by Obama after an unsuccessful effort during his first term.
Twenty years after the Oslo accords established the principle of land for peace as the basis for negotiations, the obstacles are as great as ever, and perhaps greater. Both sides are coping with turmoil in neighboring Egypt and Syria, as well as internal political divisions.
Netanyahu’s governing coalition is fragile, and the Palestinians have ruptured into dueling entities, one governed by the West Bank-based Abbas, the other by Islamist Hamas militants in Gaza who don’t recognize Israel’s right to exist. Israel and the U.S. consider Hamas a terrorist organization, and the group has denounced the talks.
At the White House, Livni was accompanied by Yitzhak Molcho, a close adviser and attorney to Netanyahu whom the Jerusalem Post described as her “minder.” Erekat came with Mohammad Shtayyeh, a member of the Fatah Central Committee.
Obama was joined by Vice President Joe Biden, Kerry, National Security Adviser Susan Rice, Special Envoy Martin Indyk, and White House Coordinator for the Middle East Phillip Gordon.
If the political landscape is forbidding, the “final-status” issues that have been deal-breakers in previous peace talks -- including borders, refugees, security and conflicting claims to Jerusalem -- haven’t gotten any easier.
Kerry has insisted that the negotiators tackle these core issues from the start, the State Department official said.
Erekat said yesterday that he was “delighted that all final-status issues are on the table and will be resolved without any exceptions.” Partial peace deals suggested in the past envisioned leaving some of the hardest issues, such as the future of Jerusalem, to be resolved in subsequent negotiations.
Livni referred to past attempts to negotiate a peace when she sat across the table from Erekat.
“We didn’t reach a dead end in the past, but we didn’t complete our mission,” she said. “This is something that we need to do now.”
“I believe that history is not made by cynics,” Livni said. “It is made by realists who are not afraid to dream. And let us be these people.”