WASHINGTON — Israelis and Palestinians have agreed to a nine-month timeline for final-status negotiations, a US State Department official revealed early Monday afternoon, hours before peace talks were set to officially begin in Washington.
“This is the beginning of final-status arrangements on a nine-month timetable,” said State Department Spokeswoman Jen Psaki. She emphasized that the two sides “have agreed to a timetable” but that “it is not a deadline, but an agreement that they will work together for at least this period.”
In the hours before negotiations are set to begin at a festive Iftar dinner at the State Department, Secretary of State John Kerry will brief US President Barack Obama on the talks. The two regularly meet on Mondays, but at this meeting, talks “will be a big focus of the conversation.”
Before the dinner, Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Martin Indyk, the US Mideast peace envoy, held a meeting at the Mayflower Hotel in downtown Washington. Livni addressed the press ahead of the sit-down and said: “The aim of these talks is to end a conflict that has lasted years. It sounds simple, but it’s not.”
Livni continued by saying that solving the conflict is in Israel’s interests, and that it’s not a “favor” to the Palestinians or to the Americans.
“It’s very complicated and complex,” she said. “We are embarking on a journey that will doubtless take time. We will need to evaluate things down the road and see if it [a peace deal] is achievable, and how.”
Following the presidential briefing, Kerry is expected to hold a series of meetings with members of the Israeli and Palestinian delegations.
The State Department plans for this current round of talks to conclude early Tuesday afternoon — a timeline that reinforces the sense that the Washington talks are meant merely to lay down a preliminary framework for future rounds. Subsequent talks may take place in the region rather than in the US.
Psaki complimented the Sunday Israeli Cabinet vote to approve the release of 104 Palestinian prisoners, describing it as an “important step,” and said that the State Department understood that this was a difficult move for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
She deferred expressing an opinion on the implications of Israel’s National Referendum Law, saying instead that “a referendum would be something that would happen at the end of the process” and that the Israelis and Palestinians would have to “work that out” should it become relevant. “First, let’s get to that point,” she added.
The State Department representative reinforced that it was not merely Kerry, but also Obama who was deeply involved in bringing about the current round of talks. “The president is very engaged in the process,” said Psaki.
Earlier Monday, Kerry also noted that “this effort began with President Obama’s historic trip to Israel and Ramallah in March of this year. And without his commitment, without his conversations there, and without his engagement in this initiative, we would not be here today. The president charged me directly with the responsibility to explore fully the possibility of resuming talks.”
Earlier Monday, Kerry announced the appointment of former ambassador Martin Indyk to serve as US envoy for Mideast peace and the top American negotiator for the peace talks set to open in Washington, D.C.
“Going forward, it is no secret this is a difficult process. If it were easy, it would have happened a long time ago,” Kerry told reporters Monday.
Indyk described the appointment as “a daunting and humbling challenge, but one that I cannot desist from.” He recounted his own early taste of successful negotiations, mentioning that the Yom Kippur War cease-fire was brokered while he was a student in Jerusalem.
He promised that he would work “to achieve President Obama’s vision of two states living side by side in peace and security.”
During the Oslo peace talks in the 1990s, Indyk served twice as president Bill Clinton’s ambassador to Israel, and once in the post he now re-assumes as top Middle East peace envoy.
The choice of Indyk has come under fire by some critics of the peace process, on the left and the right, because of his association with the failures of the Oslo process.
Kerry alluded to this: “He knows what has worked and he knows what hasn’t worked,” he said, as Indyk laughed and winced.
The US secretary of state said the former ambassador “shares my belief that if leaders on both sides show willingness to reasonably compromise, then peace is possible.”
The announcement was made at the State Department, hours before the first publicly scheduled meeting between Kerry, Livni and top Palestinian Authority negotiator Saeb Erekat.
JTA contributed to this report.