Israeli and Palestinian officials restarted Monday in Washington their first peace talks in nearly three years by attending an iftar dinner with US Secretary of State John Kerry at the State Department.
The iftar is the evening meal at which Muslims break their daily Ramadan fast.
The four officials are Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, in charge of peace talks in the Israeli government, Israeli Prime Minister’s special envoy Yitzhak Molcho, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat and Palestinian economist and former Palestinian Authority Cabinet Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh.
“It’s very, very special to have you here,” Kerry said before the dinner.
The four were expected to hold preliminary talks Monday evening before starting negotiations on Tuesday on agreeing a framework for peace talks.
Kerry, who organized the talks with four months of intense diplomacy, is to appear Tuesday with Livni and Erekat to publicly discuss the opening round and is expected to make an announcement on the next steps.
Plans called for them to meet again for several hours Tuesday morning.
US President Barack Obama, in a statement said the new round was a “promising step forward,” but acknowledged that “hard work and hard choices remain ahead.”
‘’I am pleased that Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas have accepted Secretary Kerry’s invitation to formally resume direct final status negotiations and have sent senior negotiating teams to Washington for the first round of meetings.’’
‘’The most difficult work of these negotiations is ahead, and I am hopeful that both the Israelis and Palestinians will approach these talks in good faith and with sustained focus and determination. The United States stands ready to support them throughout these negotiations, with the goal of achieving two states, living side by side in peace and security,’’ Obama added.
Kerry himself called for Israel and the Palestinians to make “reasonable compromises” for peace.
“It is no secret this is a difficult process. If it were easy, it would have happened a long time ago,” Kerry said with his newly named U.S. Special Envoy for Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations., former U.S. ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk, at his side.
“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 added.
In a sign of the challenges, the parties differed in public about the agenda for the talks, with an Israeli official saying all issues would be discussed simultaneously and a Palestinian official saying they would start with borders and security.
Sunday’s decision by the Israeli cabinet to approve the release of up to 104 Palestinian prisoners convicted of serious terror offences carried out before the signing of the 1993 Oslo Accords, paved the way to the talks, with Palestinian Authority leaders having made the release one of its conditions for resuming negotiations.
Those prisoners earmarked for release include individuals who carried out multiple killings of civilians, making this a sensitive and controversial decision in Israel.
The cabinet also agreed draft legislation that would require a referendum in the case of future territorial withdrawals as part of an agreement with the Palestinians.
Following the cabinet vote, Israel’s Prime Minister’s Office released a statement confirming that, “The government approved the opening of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.”
Israel’s Justice Minister Tzipi Livni travelled to Washington Sunday night Yitzhak Molcho.
Whilst the Washington talks will be limited to discussing the parameters of peace, the sides are expected to enter a substantial negotiating process for a fixed nine month period.