WASHINGTON – Israeli and Palestinian negotiators shook hands Tuesday to resume long-stalled direct peace talks that Secretary of State John Kerry said will seek to give birth to an independent Palestinian state nine months from now.
The goal is ambitious and the history of failed talks daunting, Kerry said, but the consequences of not trying are worse. The United States will be a “facilitator,” he said, but he made clear that he will push both sides hard. He has already won concessions to get talks started after a lull lasting most of the past five years.
“Compromise doesn’t only mean giving up something or giving something away; reasonable, principled compromise in the name of peace means that everybody stands to gain,” Kerry said with the lead negotiators at his side. “Each side has a stake in the other’s success, and everyone can benefit from the dividends of peace.”
Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Palestinian envoy Saeb Erekat will meet again within two weeks, either in Israel or the West Bank, Kerry said. It is not clear whether Kerry’s newly named chief envoy, veteran U.S. diplomat Martin Indyk, will attend.
The symbolic tableau of the Israeli and the Palestinian flanking the top U.S. diplomat closed two days of talks with Kerry, who has made the resumption of direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority the signature effort of his tenure so far.
“It is time for the Palestinian people to have an independent, sovereign state of their own,” Erekat told reporters. “Palestinians have suffered enough.”
Livni shook Erekat’s hand and thanked Kerry for “not giving up” on the possibility of a peace agreement.
“We are hopeful, but we cannot be naive,” Livni said. “We owe it to our people to do everything we can for their security, with the goal of peace for future generations.”
Inaugural meetings were held in Washington on Monday night and Tuesday morning. President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden also met briefly with the negotiators at the White House.
Obama has been far less visible than Kerry in U.S. efforts so far, but his imprimatur would be crucial to any potential settlement.
“Everyone involved here believes that we cannot pass along to another generation the responsibility for ending a conflict that is in our power to resolve in our time,” Kerry said.
Future generations, he said, “should not be expected to bear that burden. We should not leave it to them. They should not be expected to bear the pain of continued conflict or perpetual war.”
Kerry said all sides have agreed to directly address the “final-status issues” that have sunk past attempts at a deal, including the borders of a future Palestinian state, whether to establish a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem, and the claims of Palestinians and their descendants to homes they left in what is now Israel.
Talks will go ahead at the negotiator level for now, with an eventual goal of direct talks between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Most meetings will be in the Middle East, with Kerry an occasional visitor.
The United States is expected to step in when bargaining gets particularly difficult, or should one side threaten to walk out.
The nine-month calendar represents the time the two parties have agreed in advance that they will stay at the table, a senior State Department official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to provide some detail about the plan for talks. While not a formal deadline, the quick time frame is meant to focus both sides on the hardest issues from the start.
It is also meant to forestall the renewal of Palestinian attempts to seek statehood recognition outside of negotiations, through membership in United Nations and other international bodies — almost certainly a deal-breaker for Israel.
The new effort, if it endures, would be the most substantive since 2008, in the waning months of President George W. Bush’s second term, when Israel and the Palestinians came within sight of a deal before talks collapsed. An Obama-led effort to revive negotiations fell apart after only a few meetings in 2010.
Kerry’s frequent warning that time is running out for a “two-state solution” is mostly a reference to the increasingly thorny challenge posed by the growth of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. In the past five years, the population of settlers in the West Bank has grown by about 20 percent, and pro-settler politicians have become major players in Israel’s government.
Israel has observed an unofficial moratorium on most new housing announcements while Kerry worked to restart talks, but building has continued on previously announced projects. The Palestinians agreed to shelve a return to the United Nations.
Powerful political constituencies in both Israel and the West Bank are opposed to talks, or at least deeply suspicious of the other side’s motives. And there will be strong political pull on both Netanyahu and Abbas to reverse course.