WASHINGTON (AFP) – Israeli and Palestinian officials resume direct peace talks on Monday after a three-year hiatus, amid hopes Secretary of State John Kerry’s quiet diplomacy may this time carry some chance of success.
In a landmark agreement, the chief negotiators from both sides will meet face-to-face in Washington to draw up a plan for how the talks will proceed, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.
The dream of a Middle East peace deal has for decades been a chimera chased by U.S. presidents but has stalled since September 2010, shot down by deep divisions and distrust between the two sides.
After months of dogged diplomacy, Kerry earlier this month, on his sixth trip to the region, wrested from both sides an accord setting out “the basis for resuming direct final status negotiations,” Psaki said in a statement Sunday.
“The meetings in Washington will mark the beginning of these talks. They will serve as an opportunity to develop a procedural workplan for how the parties can proceed with the negotiations in the coming months,” he added.
Israeli Justice Minister and chief negotiator Tzipi Livni, as well as legal aide Yitzhak Molcho, will meet late Monday with Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erakat and senior official Mohammad Shtayyeh for an Iftar dinner hosted by Kerry to break the fast observed during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
Psaki said initial meetings were planned for both Monday evening and Tuesday.
“Both leaders have demonstrated a willingness to make difficult decisions that have been instrumental in getting to this point. We are grateful for their leadership,” Kerry said in the statement.
The announcement came shortly after Israel said it would release 104 Palestinians imprisoned before the 1993 Oslo peace accords.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with his cabinet for more than five hours Sunday to persuade some of his coalition partners to accept the release and approve the resumption of talks.
Israeli public radio reported the 22-member cabinet approved the release by a vote of 13-7, with two abstentions.
“This moment is not easy is for me, not easy for the ministers, and especially not easy for the bereaved families,” Netanyahu’s office quoted him as telling ministers.
Erakat welcomed the Israeli vote. “We consider this an important step and hope to be able to seize the opportunity provided by the American administration’s efforts,” he told AFP.
The names of those to be freed have yet to be officially published, but Israeli and Palestinian groups have published their own lists of prisoners held for more than 20 years — and they include people who have killed Israelis.
Israeli media lashed out at the decision.
“The murderers will go free,” thundered the front-page headline in the top-selling daily Yediot Aharonot.
Jerusalem Post diplomatic correspondent Herb Keinon predicted that these “murderers will be hailed as heroes in Hebron and Ramallah and Jenin,” and urged Palestinians to show they are serious about peace by not celebrating their release.
“As always, the government has chosen the worst option,” wrote Maariv analyst Shalom Yerushalmi.
The left-leaning Haaretz grudgingly welcomed the decision.
“The Israeli government bumped into reality on Sunday,” diplomatic correspondent Barak Ravid wrote.
“Like a drunk driver heading for a wall at full speed only to get a grip on himself at the last moment and hit the brakes, most government ministers came to their senses” and approved the release to enable a resumption of peace talks.
An editorial in the top-selling independent Palestinian newspaper Al-Quds described the release as “an important step towards resuming talks, especially given that the prisoners issue is a Palestinian national priority.”
But it stressed that other “demands” must also be met, namely basing the talks on the 1967 lines and thus admitting that “the West Bank and Gaza Strip are illegally occupied territories and are Palestinian lands.”
If Israel “is serious about restarting negotiations and helping the peace process succeed, it must stop illegal settlement building,” the editorial read.
The last round of direct peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, shepherded by President Barack Obama, broke down in 2010 over Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank and east Jerusalem.
Israel and the Palestinians remain deeply divided over so called “final status issues” — including the fate of Jerusalem claimed by both as a capital, the right of return for Palestinian refugees, and the exact borders of a future Palestinian state.
Israeli President Shimon Peres, on a visit to Latvia, hailed the resumption of peace talks.
“We want to establish a two-state solution of a Palestinian state beside the state of Israel, living in peace and friendship and bringing an end to all conflict, which is so necessary today for all the people in the Middle East,” he told reporters, describing the start of talks as a “special day.”
“The Middle East is in a stormy situation. We hope the Middle East will overcome its storm and land in a port of peace.”