The stage is set for Israel and the Palestinians to begin formal peace negotiations after their first duo of logistical and agenda setting meetings ended on Tuesday, July 30, 2013 with plans to meet again within two weeks in the Middle East. The talks began yesterday evening, July 29, 2013 in Washington, D.C. with an informal meeting about the logistics and agenda over an Iftar dinner. United States Secretary of State John Kerry and the negotiators began their day meeting with President Barack Obama at the White House. They then met again this morning at the State Department culminating in a press conference, before both sets of negotiators returned to the Middle East.
The talks will resume within two weeks with Martin Indyk is set to serve as the U.S. envoy, negotiator and mediator and will be set either in Jerusalem or the West Bank. Indyk served as the U.S. ambassador to Israel for two terms during the Clinton administration and was a vital part of the Clinton era’s attempts to broker peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Kerry took on the mediator role for the first meetings to initiate the agenda; however Indyk spoke with the negotiators Tuesday morning.
The rest of the negotiating teams for both sides consist of Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni as the designated chief negotiator for Israel, Yitzhak Molcho is personally representing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Saeb Erekat is representing the Palestinians, and Mohammed Shtayyeh as an Abbas’s advisor representing the PA President. All are veteran negotiators, who have previously been involved in failed attempts to make a peace deal.
The two sides met again on Tuesday morning at the State department to continue finalizing the agenda. Indyk spoke with both set of negotiators. The trilateral meeting was suppose to last 45 minutes, but ended up forcing Kerry’s press conference to start an hour later than scheduled. Kerry was joined by both Livni and Erkat by his side. The press conference tried to project optimism and caution as the talks will proceed, with both sides hoping for history making results.
Kerry announced that “The parties have agreed to remain engaged in sustained, continuous and substantive negotiations on the core issues.” He then outlined the major goals for the talks stating; “Our objective will be to achieve a final status agreement over the course of the next nine months. We all understand the goal we are working towards: two states living side by side in peace and security.”
Each of the chief negotiators also delivered remarks. Erekat’s comments were very brief where he stated that the; “Palestinians have suffered enough and no one will benefit more from this process than the Palestinians.” After this second meeting Israeli and the Palestinians negotiators returned to the Middle East.
Livni spoke last and praised Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the cabinet for voting in favor of the prisoner release precondition; “But it took more than just a plane ticket to be here today. A courageous act of leadership by Prime Minister Netanyahu that was approved by the Israeli Government made this visit here and the beginning of the negotiation possible.” She also emphasized; “It is not going to be easy. It will be hard with ups and downs. We are not going to argue about the past but talk about the future. There is a new opportunity, and we can’t afford to waste it.”
Negotiators from both sides started their day with an oval office meeting with President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden at the White House. Up until issuing a statement yesterday, Obama has minimized his direct involvement since his official visit to Israel this past March. Kerry is the one that has taken the active role in resuming the talks, having visited the Middle East six times since Obama’s trip with the aim of jump starting negotiations. Also present at the 30 minute meeting was National Security Administration Chief Susan Rice, NSC Coordinator Philip Gordon and Martin Indyk. White House press secretary Jay Carney speaking to reporters said; “The president used this opportunity to convey his appreciation to both sides for the leadership and courage they have shown in coming to the table, and to directly express his personal support for final-status negotiations.”
The details from the meetings this week will not be made public, nor the progress on the talks or the framework of the negotiations as Kerry has imposed a gag order on all parties involved, where he will be the only one allowed to divulge information about the status of the peace talks publicly. As Kerry stressed at the morning press conference “The only announcement you will hear about meetings is the one that I just made. I will be the only one authorized to comment on the talks.”
The only indication to the framework of the talks was Kerry’s blanket statement; “The parties have agreed to remain engaged in sustained, continuous and substantive negotiations on the core issues. The parties have agreed that all the final status issues, all the core issues and all other issues are all on the table for negotiations.” Although the basis of the talks is presumed to be creating a Palestinian state based on Israel’s pre-1967 borders with land swaps; a contentious issue among the Israeli public and lawmakers that is widely opposed. Kerry’s lofty ambitions are that negotiations will end by the start of 2014 with the creation of a Palestinian state.
Palestinians have been demanding that the talks would be based on the pre-1967 Six-Day War borders would take away from Israel Jerusalem’s old city, the Golan Heights and the West Bank, and that there will be a settlement construction freeze in Israeli settlements that are located beyond the bounds of the 1967 borders, in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Israel has demanded at a minimum level that the Palestinians recognize Israel as the Jewish State, although Israel is thoroughly opposed to Palestinian right of return to their pre-1948 homes in Israel, and any division of Jerusalem.
The Middle East Quartet consisting of United States, Russia, the United Nations and the European Union praised the resumption of negotiations Tuesday morning, issuing a statement saying; “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.”
The first face to face meeting between the two sides since 2010 happened Monday evening at a state department dinner hosted by Kerry on the top floor of the state department building. It was an Iftar dinner marking the end of the daily Ramadan month long fast, and probably the most civil and pleasant of the direct negotiations that are to come. Prior to the dinner Kerry met with both sides separately for 45 minutes each, first meeting with the Israeli negotiators, and then with the Palestinians. The meetings were meant to define the logical issues for the formal peace talks, such as locations and formats and the talks framework.
Heading to the dinner after, Kerry made light of the situation saying; “Not very much to talk about at all.” At the dinner where all sides were able to directly discuss issues among themselves, they sat at a regular table separated by groups, the U.S. mediators on one side, with the Israel and Palestinians sharing the other side of the table. The dinner’s menu consisted sweet corn and shell bean soup, grilled grouper, saffron risotto, summer vegetables with an apricot upside down cake for dessert.
This is the first time talks will have resumed in three years since they stalled in 2010 over West Bank Jewish settlement construction. Kerry made six trips to the Middle East since March to secure this agreement. Kerry finally announced both sides agreed to peace talks on July 19, 2013. There was only one precondition Israel had to release 104 pre-Oslo Accords prisoners convicted of murder and terrorism. The Israeli cabinet voted 13-7 on Sunday, July 28 in favor of the release despite serious opposition from lawmakers and the public, leading to the Palestinians formally agreeing to the talks resumption.
Although the mere fact that Israel and the Palestinians had their first face to face meeting these past two days and committed to serious discussions is heralded by all sides at the negotiating table. The theme they all maintain is however, caution mixed with optimism while emphasizing the difficult road ahead full of sacrifices. These meetings were only the first step, for twenty years both sides have taken the same first step many times before, but the issues are tough, contentious and nine months of negotiations is a long time.
- Secretary of State John Kerry’s Press Conference and Remarks on the Middle East Peace Process Talks, July 30, 2013
- Timeline Middle East peace talks resume, Chicago Tribune, July 29, 2013
Bonnie K. Goodman is the Editor of the Academic Buzz Network, a series of political, academic & education blogs which includes History Musings: History, News & Politics. She has a BA in History & Art History & a Masters in Library and Information Studies, both from McGill University, and has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies program. Her specializations are US, Canadian & Israeli politics.