Kerry sets 9-month goal for reaching accord on Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Hannah Allam,Lesley Clark

WASHINGTON Heralding what he called a “new moment of possibility” toward Middle East peace, Secretary of State John Kerry on Tuesday announced an ambitious schedule for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, saying he hopes negotiators for the two sides will have agreed to a framework for a settlement in nine months.

President Barack Obama put the weight of the White House behind the effort, personally greeting Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, who were in Washington for the first direct talks between the two sides in three years.

Kerry, too, has paid close attention to reviving the long-stalled process, and many now feel its success or failure will be a major part of his legacy. He’s traveled frequently to the region in the past four months, laying the groundwork. Overseeing the day-to-day progress will fall to special envoy Martin Indyk, who was named to the job on Monday.

Kerry conceded that pitfalls remain, but he said it wasn’t the time to listen to the skeptics who wonder how this plan will succeed when all such past attempts have collapsed. This time, at least, the talks appear to have made it to the next round – the parties have agreed to meet again in the Middle East within two weeks.

“We’re here today because the Israeli people and the Palestinian people both have leaders willing to heed the call of history, leaders who will stand strong in the face of criticism and are right now for what they know is in their people’s best interests,” Kerry said. “Their commitment to make tough choices, frankly, should give all of us hope that these negotiations actually have a chance to accomplish something.”

Livni and Erekat, along with their entourages, met with their U.S. counterparts Monday night for a brief round of introductory talks, followed by an Iftar, the traditional breaking of the fast in the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

More formal talks began Tuesday, but very few details were released. Both the State Department and the White House said all parties had agreed to keep the negotiations quiet, with only infrequent updates. Kerry said that he’d be the source of any official updates.

At the White House, Press Secretary Jay Carney said “all sides agree that it would be most conducive to this process” to not divulge details. He only gave a broad-brush update, saying that Obama was still focused on the hard work that lies ahead.

“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 negotiation,” Carney said.

It’s no secret what contentious issues will be under discussion: setting starting points for border talks, deciding the future of contested Jerusalem, and Israel’s continued construction of settlements, to name some of the perennial sticking points.

One of the biggest potential spoilers to any agreement is the fate of Gaza, which is controlled by the Islamist militants of Hamas, who oppose any negotiations with Israel.

Robert Danin, a former senior Middle East specialist for the State Department and the National Security Council who’s now at the Council on Foreign Relations, said it’s time for the United States to recognize that attempts to rout Hamas from Gaza have failed and that it’s time to push for Palestinian reconciliation – but not necessarily direct engagement with Hamas.

Otherwise, Danin said, the U.S. is pushing for a peaceful resolution that President Mahmoud Abbas, of the moderate Fatah Party, won’t be able to deliver to Gazans.

“Gaza is one of the huge elephants in the room that no one talks about,” Danin said. “Abbas only controls the West Bank.”

Despite the obstacles ahead, Danin said, Kerry’s initiative is ambitious, broader even than what was initially called for by Obama after his visit to the region in March.

Kerry is determined to wrangle from the parties an end-of-conflict agreement that leaves no outstanding claims from either side. Even more daunting is the timetable Kerry is aiming for – only nine months to hammer such polarizing issues as whether Palestinian refugees have the right of return.

“If they start digging themselves into a ditch, that’s where the U.S. role will be imperative,” Danin said.

Ideally, State Department officials have said, the United States will play more of an observer role, letting the Palestinian and Israelis have plenty of time to work out their own issues. One senior State Department official, speaking to reporters on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, insisted that the revived talks were not “a U.S. assistance program.”

Ali Watkins of the Washington Bureau contributed to this report.

By Hannah Allam and Lesley Clark
McClatchy Washington Bureau