Israeli and Palestinian teams flew to Washington yesterday to end five years of diplomatic stalemate and prepare for a new round of Middle East peace talks, though optimism was in short supply after two decades of failed attempts to reach a deal.
The resumption of talks was made possible by a decision by Israel’s Cabinet on Sunday to free 104 long-held Palestinian prisoners in four stages. The release was part of an agreement brokered early this month by US Secretary of State John Kerry to bring the two sides back to the negotiating table.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has been reluctant to negotiate with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, fearing the Israeli leader will reject what the Palestinians consider minimal territorial demands.
The Palestinians want a state in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, territories Israel captured in 1967, but have accepted the principle of limited land swaps to allow Israel to annex some of the dozens of settlements it has built on war-won lands.
Abbas has repeatedly said he will only go to talks if Israel either freezes settlement building or recognizes the 1967 lines as a starting point for drawing the border of a state of Palestine.
Palestinian officials yesterday reiterated that they received US assurances that Washington considers the 1967 lines the basis for border talks.
However, a senior Abbas aide acknowledged that Israel has not signed on to that principle. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the issue with reporters.
Senior Israeli officials have also said in recent days that settlement construction would continue.
The Palestinian official said the expected prisoner release went a long way toward persuading Abbas to give negotiations another chance, even without Israel meeting his longstanding demands on the terms of such talks.
The two teams were to meet for the first time yesterday in Washington for discussions that will not deal with the fundamental issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but rather aim to lay the foundations for full-fledged peace talks later this year.
The US Department of State said it would try to establish a work plan for the broader negotiations, which are to last six to nine months.
Israel is represented by chief negotiator Tzipi Livni and Yitzhak Molcho, a veteran Netanyahu adviser. The Palestinian team consists of chief negotiator Saeb Erekat and Abbas aide Mohammed Shtayyeh.
The actual negotiations are to be held in the region.
Livni said that she is going to the talks “cautiously, but also with hope.”
Hanan Ashrawi, a Palestinian spokeswoman, said the talks are being held under more difficult conditions than previous negotiations.
She cited the Palestinian split, with Western-backed moderate Abbas and the Islamic militant Hamas running rival governments in the West Bank and Gaza, as well as the more hawkish positions of Netanyahu, compared with his predecessor.