Israeli and Palestinian officials met on Monday in Washington to restart the peace process after a three year hiatus, with US Secretary of State John Kerry and newly-appointed US envoy to the Middle East process Martin Indyk looking on.
Israel’s chief negotiator, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s envoy Yitzhak Molcho met over an Iftar dinner at the US State Department with chief PLO negotiator Saeb Erekat and Fatah official Muhammad Shtayyeh.
As the sides came together in Washington on Monday Kerry met separately with each, starting with the Israelis, before all came together around the dinner table. Kerry and his delegation of four, including new envoy Indyk, were seated on one side of the table and their guests on the other side, with the two main negotiators Livni and Erekat seated side by side.
"We are after about four years of stagnation and in the past we negotiated but we reached a dead end. I hope there is a better understanding now that it is in the interest of both of our people to reach an agreement to end this conflict," Livni said in an interview with Reuters Television in Washington ahead of the dinner.
She expressed gratitude to Kerry for his involvement in the talks, and said his "enthusiasm and determination to help both sides" helps a lot.
"There is some hope. And I hope that when in Israel they see the first meeting, they would understand that we shouldn't give up hope and that it is reachable," she said. "We need to do it because it's an Israeli interest. It's not a favor to the United States or the Palestinians - this is something that we need to do," she added.
“It is no secret that this is a difficult process,” Kerry said at a press conference at the US State Department announcing the beginning of the talks and Indyk’s appointment. “If it were easy, it would have happened a long time [ago].”
“It’s no secret, therefore, that many difficult choices lie ahead for the negotiators and for the leaders as we seek reasonable compromises on tough, complicated, emotional and symbolic issues. I think reasonable compromises have to be a keystone of all of this effort.”
"It’s been my conviction for 40 years that peace is possible since I experienced the agony of the 1973 Yom Kippur War as a student in Jerusalem," Indyk said in a statement accepting his new position.
Indyk praised Obama and Kerry for "persistence, patience and creativity" in bringing the sides back to the table, and acknowledged that the task ahead would be a "daunting and humbling" challenge.
The discussions, which were expected to continue on Tuesday, were to deal with technical and logistical matters. The following rounds of the talks are expected to take place in the region.
US President Barack Obama issued a statement following Kerry’s announcement of the talks saying that when he was in Jerusalem and Ramallah in March he “experienced firsthand the profound desire for peace among both Israelis and Palestinians, which reinforced my belief that peace is both possible and necessary.”
“The most difficult work of these negotiations is ahead,” Obama said, “and I am hopeful that both the Israelis and Palestinians will approach these talks in good faith and with sustained focus and determination.”
Kerry was set to brief Obama at the White House before the dinner meeting and give him a “preview” of his plans for the next two days. The secretary of state did not speak about the parameters or terms of reference of the talks during his brief remarks to the press, though he did mention “reasonable compromises” three times. He said he would have more to say about “what our hopes are” after the initial meetings between the sides conclude on Tuesday.
The secretary of state praised both Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas for “courageous leadership” and “their willingness to make difficult decisions.”
He said Indyk’s role would be to “help the parties navigate the path to peace and to avoid its many pitfalls.”
Indyk will be assisted by Kerry’s aide, Frank Lowenstein, who has been by Kerry’s side since March pushing the process forward.
Indyk is extremely well acquainted with the Israeli- Palestinian diplomatic process, having served twice as the US ambassador to Israel under then-US president Bill Clinton. Before that, he served as Clinton’s chief adviser in the National Security Council on Arab-Israeli issues, as well as on Iraq and Iran. He also worked with secretaries of state Warren Christopher and Madeleine Albright on these issues.
For three years in the early 1980s, Indyk worked as a deputy research director for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, and then for eight years as the executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Indyk will take a leave of absence for the new post from his current job as director of foreign policy at the Brookings Institute.
Kerry termed Indyk “realistic,” and someone who knows that peace will “not come easily and not happen overnight.” He said peace between Israel and the Palestinians was Indyk’s “life mission,” and that his experience in the region has earned him the respect of both sides “He knows what has worked and he knows what hasn’t worked, and he knows how important it is to get this right,” Kerry continued.
Livni issued a statement praising the appointment, saying Indyk was a “talented and experienced” diplomat who knows the conflict from up close, is familiar with every “path and obstacle” and believes the conflict can be solved.
Prior to flying to Washington, Livni and Molcho met UN Secretary-General Ban Kimoon in New York. Ban expressed “strong support for the resumption of credible negotiations to achieve the two-state solution,” and in an apparent reference to the cabinet’s decision Sunday to release 104 Palestinian security prisoners, expressed his appreciation for Netanyahu’s “recent courageous decision.”
State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki, in her daily press briefing, called the cabinet vote in Israel on the resumption of negotiations and approval of the release of the Palestinian prisoners “a positive step forward,” and said that the nine-month timeline outlined by both parties for the talks “is not a deadline.”
Questioned about the decision of both Israel and the Palestinian Authority to put any final-status agreement to a public referendum, Psaki said, “Our effort is to get there.”Reuters contributed to this report.
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