Israeli and Palestinian negotiators on Tuesday set an ambitious goal to reach an elusive peace deal within nine months, despite warnings of obstacles and provocations lying in wait ahead.
Standing side-by-side with US Secretary of State John Kerry, who has dragged them back to the negotiating table, officials from both sides said it was time to end their decades-old conflict.
“I can assure you that in these negotiations, it’s not our intention to argue about the past, but to create solutions and make decisions for the future,” Israel’s chief negotiator, Israeli Minister of Justice Tzipi Livni, told Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat.
“I believe that history is not made by cynics. It is made by realists who are not afraid to dream. And let us be these people,” she said.
“No one benefits more from the success of this endeavor than Palestinians,” Erekat said. “It’s time for the Palestinian people to have an independent sovereign state of their own.”
Both sides have agreed to meet again “within the next two weeks,” either in Israel or the Palestinian territories, to begin formal direct, bilateral negotiations, Kerry said.
“Our objective will be to achieve a final status agreement over the course of the next nine months,” he added at the end of two days of talks in Washington.
He again urged compromise, saying: “We cannot pass along to another generation the responsibility of ending a conflict that is in our power to resolve in our time.”
US officials praised the leadership and courage shown by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and said no one was under any illusion the path ahead was going to be easy.
“There will be provocations. Everybody knows that there will be people on both sides who will do things that will make things more difficult,” a senior White House official told reporters. “We hope that the parties will understand that and realize what’s going on and do what they can to not be provoked.”
The Obama administration’s last foray into the intractable Arab-Israeli conflict ended in failure, when talks launched in September 2010 collapsed just weeks later over continued Israeli settlement building.
Kerry, who has staked much of his reputation as secretary of state on his single-minded pursuit of a Middle East peace deal, said all the contentious core issues would be on the table.
The so-called “final status issues” include such emotive problems as the right of return for Palestinian refugees, ejected from their lands with the 1948 creation of Israel; the exact borders of a Palestinian state, complicated by the Jewish settlements on the occupied West Bank; and the fate of the holy city of Jerusalem claimed by both sides as a future capital.
Officials confirmed they have not this time sought assurances from the Israelis on freezing settlement construction, which had been one of the main Palestinian demands for returning to the talks.
And while it remains the US position that any future Palestinian state should be based on the 1967 borders, before Israel seized the West Bank, with mutual land swaps, he said: “It would not be safe to say that the parties have accepted that as the basis for negotiation.”
The officials said it had not yet been decided in what sequence each of the core issues would be addressed, neither was there an exact timetable for the negotiations going forward.
However, Kerry “already feels the clock ticking,” the US State Department official said.
One of “the motivating factors” for the relaunch of the talks was to avoid a “train wreck” if the Palestinians decided to take their case for statehood to other international bodies as they did at the UN, the White House official added.
“So long as this process is moving forward, I think the risks of that sort of thing are reduced, if not entirely eliminated,” he said.
The US sees its main role now in the talks as a “facilitator,” with new US envoy to the peace talks Martin Indyk preparing to spend time in the region to work on the negotiations on a “day-to-day” basis.
It was not immediately certain if he would attend the next talks though.
Earlier, US President Barack Obama lent his weight to the fresh peace initiative, meeting with both Livni and Erekat at the White House.
“He underscored that there is much to do in the days and months ahead,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said.
Kerry had broken the ice late on Monday by hosting an iftar dinner at which Livni and Erekat sat side-by-side to end the Muslim day of fasting for Ramadan.