WASHINGTON (AFP) – After a three-year stalemate, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators on Tuesday set themselves an ambitious goal to reach a long elusive peace deal within nine months.
Standing side-by-side with U.S. 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,” Israeli chief negotiator Tzipi Livni told her Palestinian counterpart Saeb Erakat.
Both sides have agreed to meet again “within the next two weeks,” Kerry said, either in Israel or the Palestinian territories to begin formal negotiations.
“Our objective will be to achieve a final status agreement over the course of the next nine months,” he added after hosting two days of talks in Washington.
He again urged compromise, saying “reasonable, principled compromise in the name of peace means that everybody stands to gain, each side has a stake in the other’s success, and everyone can benefit from the dividends of peace.
“We cannot pass along to another generation the responsibility of ending a conflict that is in our power to resolve in our time,” he added.
Livni said over past years the two sides failed to “complete our mission,” adding Kerry’s efforts had given them a new opportunity, which neither side could “afford to waste.”
Erakat agreed, saying: “No one benefits more from the success of this endeavor than Palestinians.
“It’s time for the Palestinian people to have an independent sovereign state of their own,” he said, before the two negotiators shook hands in front of the cameras.
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 most contentious issues would be on the table.
The so-called “final status issues” include such emotive and difficult 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 mushrooming of Jewish settlements across the occupied West Bank; and the fate of the holy city of Jerusalem claimed by both sides as a future capital.
“I’m delighted all issues are on the table and will be resolved without any exceptions,” Erakat told reporters at the State Department event.
Kerry again insisted the exact details of the discussions would be kept under wraps, and the Middle East Quartet urged both sides not to “undermine trust” as they get down to the nitty-gritty.
The Quartet “calls on all parties to take every possible step to promote conditions conducive to the success of the negotiating process and to refrain from actions that undermine trust,” said a joint statement from the US, Russia, European Union and United Nations.
Martin Indyk Earlier, President Barack Obama lent his weight to the fresh initiative to hammer out a Middle East peace deal, meeting with both Livni and Erakat at the White House.
“He underscored that there is much to do in the days and months ahead,” White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters.
Obama had also wanted to “convey his appreciation to both sides for the leadership and courage they have shown in coming to the table,” Carney added.
Livni and Erakat also held their first bilateral talks in years at the State Department early Tuesday.
Kerry had broken the ice late Monday by hosting an iftar dinner at which Livni and Erakat sat side-by-side to end the Muslim day of fasting for Ramadan.
However, Livni admitted to Israeli public radio that disagreements within Israel’s right-leaning governing coalition could pose an obstacle to any deal.
Kerry has named seasoned diplomat Martin Indyk as the U.S. special envoy to the talks, and he is expected to take over the day-to-day work of keeping them on track.
It was not immediately clear if Kerry intended to return to the region for the next round of talks.
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.
But Obama has welcomed the start of new talks as a “promising step” forward, and promised U.S. support as the two sides mull the “hard choices” facing them.
In a sign of the continued hostilities, a rocket fired from the Hamas-run Gaza Strip hit southern Israel early Tuesday but caused no casualties.
The Islamist militant group Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, is deeply opposed to the resumed talks, but has observed an informal truce with Israel since November.