Israeli-Palestinian peace talks set to begin in Washington under Kerry’s watch

Appointing Martin Indyk as Middle East peace envoy, Secretary of State John Kerry emphasized the "emotional and symbolic issues" that will be involved.
July 29, 2013

Secretary of State John F. Kerry’s shuttle diplomacy mission to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks Monday took six shuttles to the Middle East, many more weeks and a lot more wheedling than expected.

Now the hard part begins.

“It’s no secret that this is a difficult process. If it were easy, it would have happened a long time ago,” Kerry said ahead of the inauguration of the first direct talks in three years.

“It’s no secret, therefore, that many difficult choices lie ahead for the negotiators and for the leaders as we seek reasonable compromises on tough, complicated, emotional and symbolic issues.”

Kerry was hosting Israelis and Palestinians for dinner at the State Department on Monday, to be followed by the first nuts-and-bolts session Tuesday. No further meetings have been announced, but officials said the intent is to hold regular discussions in the Middle East thereafter.

“I think reasonable compromises have to be a keystone of all of this effort,” Kerry said at the State Department. “I know the negotiations are going to be tough, but I also know that the consequences of not trying could be worse.”

The effort to relaunch talks has dominated Kerry’s five months in office and opened him to criticism that he was slighting the crises in Syria and Egypt for the elusive prize of a peace treaty between the Israelis and Palestinians.

Kerry kept details of his talks quiet, but the difficulty of the task was evident. Kerry had hoped to relaunch talks in June, and he and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had insisted there would be no preconditions.

Instead, the task stretched well into the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, complicating Kerry’s discussions with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and Israel agreed to meet one of Abbas’s preconditions for talks by announcing plans for the release of 104 long-held Palestinian prisoners.

Abbas risks losing popular support just for agreeing to negotiate. Netanyahu took a sizable political risk with the release of men with Israeli blood on their hands.

Having invested countless hours getting the project to the starting line, Kerry will now step back. He announced Monday that veteran U.S. diplomat Martin Indyk will run the day-to-day talks for the United States. Kerry is expected to step in when things get rough.

Indyk carries credibility with both sides and maintains wide contacts among Israeli officials, in particular.

“Today Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Mahmoud Abbas have made the tough decisions required to come back to the negotiating table,” Indyk said Monday, standing with Kerry. He said he hoped to help “take this breakthrough and turn it into a full-fledged Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.”

President Obama hailed resumption of talks with a cautious statement.

“This is a promising step forward, though hard work and hard choices remain ahead,” Obama said.

He said Indyk “brings unique experience and insight to this role, which will allow him to contribute immediately as the parties begin down the tough, but necessary, path of negotiations.”

The effort Indyk will direct will, unlike the last major peace push in 2007 and 2008, place the United States in the central role of mediator and prod. Kerry has sketched the outline of the talks, intended to run about nine months and address head-on the issues that have sunk past efforts — the fate of Jerusalem, the issue of which Israeli settlements on the West Bank would be included in a redrawn Israel, and the claims of Palestinians who left land in what is now Israel at the founding of the Jewish state.

In his 2009 memoir of the Clinton-era efforts to win a peace deal, “Innocent Abroad,” Indyk wrote that the United States has sometimes tried too hard. He pointed to “a troubling naivete in the American approach to the Middle East that is part innocence, part ignorance, and part arrogance.”

Indyk also wrote that “future presidents need to insist that during final status negotiations all settlement activity be frozen, including in the settlement blocs, unless it is done in agreement with the Palestinians.”

Israel has not publicly agreed to any such thing but has observed an unofficial moratorium on most announcements of new settlement building while Kerry worked to get talks going. Kerry is not expected to insist on a true freeze in settlement building during talks, the condition once favored by his predecessor, Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Anne Gearan is The Washington Post's diplomatic correspondent.
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