Secret steps to Middle East peace

Palestinian and Israeli negotiators have agreed that "all issues are on the table" in their renewed effort to resolve the Middle East conflict, United States Secretary of State John Kerry said this week.

Concluding two days of preliminary talks between the sides, Kerry struck an optimistic note, saying he did not share the view of sceptics who argue that Israel and Palestine cannot find common ground to end what he called their "perpetual war".

He called the renewed talks – the first in three years – a "new moment of possibility".

Flanked by Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and veteran Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, Kerry said both sides had agreed to seek a final status agreement within nine months.

"The parties have agreed to remain engaged in sustained, continuous, substantive negotiations on the core issues, and they will meet within the next two weeks, in either Israel or the Palestinian territories, in order to begin the process of formal negotiations," he said.

"The parties have agreed here today that all of the final status issues, all of the core issues, and all other issues are on the table for negotiation."

He added: "They are on the table with one simple goal: a view to ending the conflict, ending the claims."

Livni and Erekat both expressed hope that the talks would succeed in resolving the intractable conflict, and briefly shook hands.

Comprehensive agreement
The announcement that talks would include all final status issues is a rebuff to those who have argued that issues such as the future of Jerusalem and the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their pre-1948 homeland are too complex to be addressed and should be deferred to a future round of negotiations. The gaps between the two sides on these issues are wide, but they are essential components of a comprehensive agreement.

Earlier on July 30 the delegations met US President Barack Obama and Vice-President Joe Biden in the White House. Obama's personal involvement is a significant reinforcement of US engagement and will add to already considerable international pressure on both sides.

The negotiation teams also met alone, without any US officials present.

"I am pleased to report that the conversations that we had last night, and again today, have been constructive and positive meetings," Kerry said.

The secretary of state added that both parties had agreed that the negotiations would remain secret and only he was authorised to comment publicly on their progress.

"The only announcement you will hear about meetings is the one I have just made," he said.

Palestinian and Israeli negotiations, aimed at reviving the moribund Middle East peace process, come amid warnings that this could be the last chance to reach an agreement to end the historic conflict.

Future generations

Many observers are expressing doubts about whether the negotiations will be different from previous attempts to resolve the conflict, all of which have ended in failure.

However, Kerry is determined to push forward with the talks, saying that future generations "should not be expected to bear the burden" of "continual conflict or perpetual war". His personal commitment has been a critical factor in persuading the two sides to meet.

"I know the path is difficult. There is no shortage of passionate sceptics," he said.

"While I understand the scepticism, I don't share it. And I don't think we have time for it. I firmly believe that the leaders and negotiators and citizens invested in this effort can make peace for one simple reason: because they must."

He said the Israeli government would, in the coming weeks, take "a number of steps in order to improve conditions in the West Bank and in Gaza" and said there had recently been a "dramatic decrease" in terror attacks emerging from the West Bank.

The inclusion of Gaza suggests US pressure to include the tiny territory, ruled by Hamas for the past six years and both physically and politically separated from the West Bank, in any wider deal.

This week, Israel announced it would ease limits on supplies of goods, including fuel, to Gaza following the closure by the Egyptian authorities of almost all smuggling tunnels, which supply the population with much of its day-to-day needs.

Facilitating the negotiations
Kerry added: "Many things are already happening. When somebody tells you that Israelis and Palestinians cannot find common ground, or address the issues that divide them, don't believe them. Just look at the things they are doing together, and trying to do together."

This week Kerry formally appointed Martin Indyk, the former US ambassador to Israel, to be his envoy facilitating the negotiations.

Indyk will spend a significant amount of time in the region in the coming months trying to broker a deal, US officials have said.

Livni and Erekat appeared side-by-side at the state department shortly after their meeting at the White House, which was intended as a gesture of Obama's commitment to the process.

Although Obama visited the region in March, and was cited by Kerry as a key force behind the peace negotiations, he has mostly played a backseat role, allowing his secretary of state to drive the talks.

Kerry has travelled to the region six times since February, and made resuscitating peace negotiations a priority for his department.

Negotiations began in Washington on July 29, when Kerry hosted both parties at an iftar meal to break the Ramadan fast over grilled fish and iced tea.

A senior state department official described the 90-minute private dinner as "constructive and productive".

Withdrawal from the territory
If progress is made, Kerry hopes to be able to announce the first face-to-face meeting between the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanayhu, and the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, in almost three years.

Although both parties have agreed to refrain from making public comments on the substance of the talks, Abbas said in Cairo that a final agreement between the two sides must include a total Israeli military and civilian withdrawal from the territory of a future Palestinian state.

"In a final resolution we would not see the presence of a single Israeli – civilian or soldier – on our lands," Abbas said in a media briefing.

Israel has previously said it wants to keep a military presence in the Jordan Valley to create a security buffer between a Palestinian state and neighbouring Jordan.

The next stage of talks is expected to focus initially on the issue of borders. The Palestinians and the US want the pre-1967 line to be the basis for negotiations, with agreed land swaps to compensate for deviations. Israel has so far refused to commit to this.

Other, even more difficult, issues – such as the future of Jerusalem, which both sides want as a capital, and whether any of the 4.9-million Palestinian refugees can return to their former homes, now in Israel – would have to be addressed over the coming months.

Those discussions will be shepherded by Indyk, with the help of Frank Lowenstein, a former Senate foreign relations committee chief of staff, who has aided Kerry in recent months.

Philip Gordon, a senior White House official, will also participate in the process.

Forging a decision
In brief comments at the state department on July 30 Erekat, who is leading the talks with the help of Mohammed Shtayyeh, a Fatah central committee member, said: "I am delighted that all final status issues are on the table and will be resolved without any exceptions … It is time for the Palestinians to live in peace, freedom and dignity in their own independent, sovereign state."

His counterpart Livni, who came to Washington with Israeli prime ministerial aide Isaac Molcho, echoed Kerry's optimistic tone and said the Israelis did not intend to "argue about the past".

"We all know it is not going to be easy – it is going to be hard, with ups and downs," she said.

"I hope that our meeting today, and the negotiations that have been launched today, will cause a spark of hope, even if small, to emerge out of the cynicism and pessimism that is so often heard," she said.

"It is our task to work together so that we can transform that spark into something real and lasting."

She also praised the "courage" of Netanyahu – who helped forge a decision by the Israeli Cabinet on July 28 to release 104 long-term Palestinian prisoners, a decision which was controversial in Israel – overcoming a key hurdle to the talks.

Tony Blair – the representative of the Middle East Quartet that comprises the US, European Union, United Nations and Russia – welcomed the announcement of a renewed peace process.

"This is a hugely significant breakthrough," he said. "The fact that direct final status talks are starting again sends an immense signal of hope across the region and wider world. There is no doubt that the road to peace will be hard. But the consequences of leaving the peace process in disrepair would be so much harder." – © Guardian News & Media 2013

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