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Israel and Palestinians begin talks in Washington

Palestinian and Israeli officials begin talks in Washington on a framework for a new round of peace negotiations, three years after the last attempt to clinch a deal broke down over the issue of Israeli settlements.

US secretary of state John Kerry with former US ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk, who will shepherd the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
US secretary of state John Kerry with former US ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk, who will shepherd the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

RAMALLAH & NEW YORK // Palestinian and Israeli officials began talks in Washington yesterday on a framework for a new round of peace negotiations, three years after the last attempt to clinch a deal broke down over the issue of Israeli settlements.

John Kerry, the US secretary of state, was scheduled to host Israel's chief negotiator, justice minister Tzipi Livni, and veteran Palestinian negotiators Saeb Erekat and Mohammed Shtayyeh at an iftar dinner after the sides met for informal talks at the State Department in the afternoon. The talks are expected to continue today.

Yitzhak Molcho, a confidant of the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, will also act as an Israeli negotiator, and Mr Kerry yesterday announced former US ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk as the lead American envoy.

Mr Indyk has been closely involved with previous attempts at peace, and is reportedly respected by both sides. Speaking at the United Nations today after meeting Secretary General Ban Ki-moon before heading to Washington, Ms Livni said she did not know whether she should congratulate Mr Indyk on his new role because the talks will be "very tough and problematic".

"It is a daunting and humbling challenge, but one that I cannot desist from," Mr Indyk said at a press conference with Mr Kerry announcing his nomination.

The US president Barack Obama welcomed the start of talks between Israel and the Palestinians, urging both sides to approach them with honesty.

"The most difficult work of these negotiations is ahead, and I am hopeful that both the Israelis and Palestinians will approach these talks in good faith," he said.

Both sides have agreed in principle to continue negotiations for at least nine months, the state department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said yesterday. "This is the beginning of direct final status negotiations on a nine-month, at least a nine-month, timetable," she said.

Mr Kerry, who has vested considerable American prestige in trying to restart talks, has remained unclear about his strategy for tackling the seemingly intractable final-status issues of Palestinian refugees, Jerusalem, borders and Jewish settlements.

"I think reasonable compromises have to be a keystone of all of this effort," Mr Kerry told reporters as he announced Mr Indyk's new position.

Already yesterday, Israeli and Palestinian officials gave conflicting accounts of how they assume the framework discussions will proceed. Silvan Shalom, an Israeli cabinet member, told Israel's Army Radio that all the final-status issues would be addressed simultaneously.

Officials of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, however, were reported as saying that they received US assurances that the pre-1967 lines be the basis for border talks, which the Palestinians said should be first on the agenda.

"Had the matter of borders and territory been given over, what incentive would they [Palestinians] have had to make concessions on the matter of refugees or Jerusalem?" Mr Shalom said.

"We are entering into new negotiations that are very complex, very complicated, in a region that is very, very difficult," Ms Livni said in comments aired yesterday by Israel's Army Radio.

"The situation in the region is changing, there are many threats, we are getting under way cautiously - but also with hope."

A PLO official said the nitty-gritty of resuming negotiations, such as the duration, location and format of peace talks, would be thrashed out during the discussions in Washington.

"It will be about issues on how to start negotiations," said the official.

Mr Kerry first announced a breakthrough in re-starting talks on July 19 after visiting the region six times since February in an attempt to revive peace negotiations.

In a statement that praised the tentative resumption of talks, he lauded Mr Netanyahu and the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, for demonstrating "a willingness to make difficult decisions that have been instrumental in getting to this point".

The US, he said, is "grateful for their leadership".

Skepticism and mistrust run high on both sides.

In Israel, there was anger yesterday at the government's decision a day earlier to release 104 Palestinians who have been imprisoned since before the 1990s Oslo peace accords for attacking Israelis.

"As always, the government has chosen the worst option," wrote columnist Shalom Yerushalmi in the Hebrew-language Maariv newspaper

"Prior to going to the negotiations in Washington, the Israeli government made a decision to free terrorists who have committed terrible crimes against innocent civilians, many of whom were teenagers and children."

Still, the release of the prisoners was crucial for convincing Mr Abbas to return to talks. So too was a promise PLO officials say Mr Kerry made to Mr Abbas that negotiations would be based on the boundaries that existed before the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, in which Israel captured East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza Strip - territories wanted for a Palestinian state.

It is not clear if Mr Netanyahuhas agreed with Mr Kerry to use the 1967 lines as a basis for the negotiations.

Mr Abbas, in return, appears to have been pressured to drop his primary demand for returning to peace talks: a complete halt to construction on Jewish settlements.

Mr Netanyahu's refusal to stop building settler homes was the chief reason why the last round of talks collapsed in 2010.

Palestinians are critical of what they see as Mr Abbas's decision to abandon the demand to halt settlements. The more than 500,000 settlers living in the Palestinian territories are seen as a major - if not already insurmountable - obstacle to the creation of a Palestinian state.

"What we see are growing settlements and the forced Juadiasation of Jerusalem," said Amra Amra, 26, a Palestinian activist in Ramallah. She was referring to settlement expansion in Israeli-occupied East Jerusalem, where the city's Palestinian population lives. "So how can we negotiate like this with a government that disrespects the right of Palestinians?"

Ayed Morrar, an activist who has organised protests against Israel's separation barrier in his West Bank village of Budrus, said most Palestinians had lost confidence in negotiations and viewed them as political cover for Israel to expand its settlements.

"We believe the Palestinian people must wake up and start pressuring the Israeli government to agree to our rights, to end the occupation, to achieve our freedom," he said, adding that "we don't trust negotiations anymore".

But Mahdi Abdul-Hadi, founder of the Jerusalem-based Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs, a research organisation, said Mr Abbas had little choice but to return to talks.

"Abbas is playing this game under the gun," he said.

The Palestinian president is short on popular legitimacy at home, Mr Abdul-Hadi said, and has failed to unite the West Bank's Fatah faction, which he heads, with the rival Hamas movement that controls Gaza. Moreover, he faces constraints from his financial and political reliance on the US, which has opposed Palestinian attempts to join United Nations' agencies as an alternative to peace talks with Israel.

"Abbas is naked. He's playing for survival," Mr Abdul-Hadi said.

 

hnaylor@thenational.ae

tkhan@thenational.ae

* Hugh Naylor reported from Ramallah

* With additional reporting from the Associated Press

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