WASHINGTON – Direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians are set to commence at the beginning of September and within a year should lead to the resolution of all final status issues, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced Friday.
Clinton said she had invited Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to Washington on September 2 “to re-launch direct negotiations to resolve all final status issues, which we believe can be completed within one year.”
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She acknowledged that the goal would be a challenging one.
“Without a doubt, we will hit more obstacles,” she noted. “The enemies of peace will keep trying to defeat us and to derail these talks. But I ask the parties to persevere, to keep moving forward even through difficult times, and to continue working to achieve a just and lasting peace in the region.”
Netanyahu and Abbas are expected to first meet individually with US President Barack Obama on September 1, when Obama will also hold bilateral meetings with King Abdullah of Jordan and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, topped off by a dinner for all four that night.
Clinton, who will preside over the trilateral meeting the next day, said that the negotiations themselves would start with no preconditions. They are due to be held in various places to be worked out, including at times in the region itself.
“These negotiations should take place without preconditions and be characterized by good faith and a commitment to their success,” Clinton stressed.
Israel has insisted that there not be preconditions to the talks, which has held up Palestinian participation as the latter have made demands ranging from a total settlement freeze, including building over the Green Line in Jerusalem, to talks from where they broke off under the previous Israeli premier to Israel’s agreeing to using the 1967 borders as the basis of negotiations.
Though none of these demands were met, by Clinton’s characterization, the Palestinians did get the short timeframe they have long sought.
Though Netanyahu has said that talks could conclude quickly, Israel has resisted any deadlines on the process. The Palestinians, however, don’t want to see an open-ended interim situation and have long pressed for a brief negotiating period.
US Middle East envoy George Mitchell, who spoke to reporters following Clinton’s announcement, declined to describe the one-year timeline as a deadline when pressed. Asked specifically whether it was a deadline, Mitchell responded, “We believe it can be done within a year and that is our objective.”
He also said that the terms of reference would be sorted out by the participating parties, despite Palestinian desires that there be firm terms of reference for the negotiations.
“Only the parties can determine the terms of reference and basis for negotiations, and they will do so when they meet and discuss these matters,” Mitchell said, indicating that applied to the sequencing of final status issues as well. “All permanent status issues will be on the table. It will be for the parties themselves to decide the manner by which they should be addressed.”
Mitchell did, however, say that the US would be ready to provide bridging proposals if necessary.
“We will be active and sustained partners,” he said. “As necessary and appropriate, we will offer bridging proposals. But I repeat: This is a direct bilateral negotiation between the parties with our assistance and with the assistance of our friends and allies.”
The Quartet of the US, UN, EU and Russia, however, made a statement Friday that provided some of the frameworks sought by the Palestinians.
In endorsing direct talks, the Quartet expressed support for “the pursuit of a just, lasting and comprehensive regional peace as envisaged in the Madrid terms of reference, Security Council resolutions and the Arab Peace Initiative.”
Those documents, though, are filled with configurations that Israel has objected to. While Jerusalem embraced Clinton’s announcement, it has remained silent on the Quartet statement, with which it has reservations.
Instead, the response of the Prime Minister’s Office only mentioned the US invitation for direct talks.
“The prime minister has been calling for direct negotiations for the past year and a half,” his statement said. “He was pleased with the American clarification that the talks would be without preconditions.”
Several Jewish organizations, ranging from the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee to J Street and Americans for Peace Now, also welcomed the move to direct talks.
In addition, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and American Task Force on Palestine issued a joint statement upon Friday’s announcement, calling for serious investment from both parties.
“Both sides must take concrete steps in the short term to instill greater mutual confidence in this process and to demonstrate resolve to stay at the negotiating table as long as it takes to achieve an agreement,” the statement read. “Israelis and Palestinians have suffered for far too long. It is time to make peace.”
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