Israelis and Palestinians aim for 'final' peace deal in nine months
Israeli and Palestinian negotiators yesterday committed to the ambitious target of reaching a peace deal within nine months, as John Kerry, the US Secretary of State, said they were ready to "heed the call of history".
The sides will hold their next round of talks within a fortnight in either Israel or the Palestinian territories, and begin full talks designed to end the long and troubled journey towards the creation of an independent Palestinian state.
Flanked by the parties' senior officials against a backdrop of the US, Israeli and Palestinian flags, John Kerry, the US Secretary of State, said: "We wouldn't be standing here if these leaders didn't believe we could get there.
"We all appreciate the challenges ahead. While I understand the scepticism, I don't share it and I don't think we have time for it. I firmly believe the leaders, the negotiators and citizens invested in this effort can make peace for one simple reason: because they must."
Tzipi Livni, the leading Israeli mediator, addressed her Palestinian counterpart Saeb Erakat, by his first name. She said: "Saeb – we have all spent time in negotiating rooms, but we didn't complete our mission. This is something we need to do now. An opportunity has been created for all of us and we cannot afford to waste it."
Mr Erakat was less effusive but agreed, saying: "No one benefits more from the success of this endeavour than Palestinians. It's time for the Palestinian people to have an independent sovereign state of their own."
The re-launch of talks in Washington came nearly three years after the last attempt broke down after just a few weeks.
Since starting his job in January Mr Kerry has made a hitherto elusive agreement to the decades-old conflict his priority, travelling to the region six times to bring the protagonists together.
He promised that the US would not lose focus on the talks, which will be overseen by Martin Indyk, a former ambassador to Israel just appointed special envoy to the region.
US President Barack Obama showed his support by praising the "courage" of Ms Livni and Mr Erakat as he welcomed them to the White House in the morning, a spokesman said.
Mr Kerry has committed both parties to a vow of silence during the nine-month period, with only his office permitted to comment on the progress of the talks. He fears leaked reports of possible compromises could fatally undermine any progress being made.
The former senator broke the ice by hosting an Iftar dinner for the negotiators at the end of the Muslim fasting for Ramadan.
Ms Livni said the mood at the dinner, held in sumptuous rooms in the State Department, had been "positive."
"All issues are on the table, but we decided that what was said will stay in the negotiating room and will not go outside," she told Israeli public radio.
America's top diplomat was adamant that all "core issues" wiould be up for negotiation in search of a "final status" agreement: the borders of the Palestinian state, the fate of Jerusalem, guarantees of Israel's security and recognition of Israel as a Jewish people, and the right of return of Palestinian refugees who lost their homes and land after Israel was established in 1948.
This is the so-called roadmap to a two-state solution that has provided the formula for four previous failed attempts at negotiation.
However, the two sides have come close to success twice, in 2000 at Camp David and in 2009 when Ehud Olmert was the Israeli prime minister.
From the Palestinians' point of view, the greatest sticking points are the amount of land seized in the West Bank that Israel will hand back, and the fate of east Jerusalem, which they claim as their capital.
While the Palestinians want Israel to return all the territories captured in the 1967 Six-Day War, they have accepted the principle of limited land swaps to allow Israel to annex some of the dozens of settlements it has built.
For Israel, it is security guarantees and the issue of recognition that trouble most. Gaza, the smaller Palestinian territory, is ruled by the militant group Hamas, which refuses to recognise Israel's right to existence.
The Israeli coalition led by prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu meanwhile contains smaller parties that oppose the two-state solution outright.
Some Palestinians already have lost faith in a two-state solution because of the encroachment of Israeli settlements. UK Foreign Secretary William Hague said that it only had a shelf-life of a year or two.
"I think the possibility of a two-state solution died a long time ago," said Diana Buttu, a Ramallah-based analyst and former legal adviser to the leadership. "To believe in a two-state solution, you have to believe that Israel will remove settlements." (©Daily Telegraph London)