UNITED NATIONS — Israel’s chief negotiator and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni says negotiations with the Palestinians in Washington could start right away.
The expectation had been that Monday’s meeting in Washington would prepare for a new round of Mideast peace talks after five years of diplomatic stalemate, but Livni said “the idea is to start the negotiations today.”
“There is a lot of cynicism and skepticism and pessimism but there is also hope,” Livni told The Associated Press before heading to Washington for a dinner Monday evening with the Palestinians hosted by US Secretary of State John Kerry.
“I believe that by relaunching the negotiations we can recreate hope for Israelis and Palestinians as well,” she said.
Livni and special adviser to the prime minister Yitzhak Molcho met with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on Monday morning in New York, ahead of the first round of renewed peace talks, scheduled for Monday and Tuesday.
After the meeting, Livni said that the meetings would be difficult, but they were necessary given developments in neighboring countries, Israel Radio reported.
Meanwhile, Ban praised Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for agreeing to the talks, and thanked the Arab League as well for its role.
According to a statement Monday from Livni’s office, she and Molcho, who arrived in New York just before their 10:30 a.m. meeting with Ban at the UN, discussed the imminent opening round of negotiations, the prevention of one-sided measures during the ongoing process and the UN’s role in supporting the peace talks.
Livni, a former foreign minister who in the current government was appointed as Israel’s envoy to the Palestinians, is scheduled to meet with chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, under the auspices of US Secretary of State John Kerry, for two days of initial final status discussions.
The peace talks are expected to last 6-9 months under a plan laid out by Kerry.
The State Department disclosed that Kerry, Erekat and Livni would dine together on Monday night.
Kerry publicly announced on Monday the appointment of former ambassador Martin Indyk as the US envoy for Middle East peace. Indyk, who is currently the vice president and director for foreign policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. has served as United States ambassador to Israel, assistant secretary of state and a US negotiator for previous rounds of peace talks. He will not, however, be the top US representative in the talks; the State Department has already stressed that Kerry will be directly involved in the negotiations.
The resumption of talks was made possible by a decision by the cabinet on Sunday to free 104 long-held Palestinian prisoners in four stages, linked to progress in talks. The release was part of an agreement brokered early this month by US Secretary of State John Kerry to bring the sides back to the negotiating table.
The two teams were to meet for the first time later Monday in Washington for discussions that, according to some reports, will not deal with the fundamental issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but rather aim to lay the foundations for full-fledged peace talks later this year. The actual negotiations, these reports said, are to be held in the region.
Livni said before her departure for Washington that she is going to the talks “cautiously, but also with hope.”
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has been reluctant to negotiate with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, fearing he will reject what the Palestinians consider minimal territorial demands.
The Palestinians want a state in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, territories Israel captured in 1967, but have accepted the principle of limited land swaps to allow Israel to annex some of the dozens of settlements it has built on war-won lands.
Abbas had repeatedly said he will only go to talks if Israel either freezes settlement building or recognizes the 1967 lines as a starting point for drawing the border of a state of Palestine.
Palestinian officials reiterated Monday that they received US assurances that Washington considers the 1967 lines the basis for border talks.
However, a senior Abbas aide acknowledged that Israel has not signed on to that principle. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the issue with reporters.
Senior Israeli officials have also reiterated in recent days that settlement construction would continue.
The Palestinian official said the expected prisoner release went a long way toward persuading Abbas to give negotiations another chance, even without Israel meeting his long-standing demands on the terms of such talks.
Hanan Ashrawi, a Palestinian spokeswoman, said the talks were being held under more difficult conditions than previous negotiations.
She cited the Palestinian political split, with Western-backed moderate Abbas and the Islamic militant Hamas running rival governments in the West Bank and Gaza, as well as the more hawkish positions of Netanyahu, compared to his predecessor.
“But I think there is a recognition of the urgency,” she said. “If we don’t move fast and decisively, things could fall apart.”
Hamas, which seized Gaza from Abbas in 2007, has dismissed the new talks, and the militant movement’s spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri on Monday rejected the notion that Abbas was representing the Palestinians at the talks.
Resuming negotiations “is a dangerous step and the only beneficiary is the occupation [Israel], which uses it as a cover for its continued crimes,” Abu Zuhri said.
Hamas wants to establish an Islamic state in all of historic Palestine, including what is now Israel. Hamas has raised the possibility of long-term ceasefires under some circumstances, but has made clear it would not consider a partition deal to be the end of the Israeli-Arab conflict.
The expected resumption of talks comes after six months of shuttle diplomacy by Kerry, and Israel’s agreement to release veteran prisoners was key to the secretary’s success.
The cabinet decision was welcomed by Palestinians and drew angry reactions in Israel.
The fate of Palestinian prisoners is an emotional issue on both sides; Palestinians tend to view the prisoners as heroes who sacrificed for the struggle for statehood, while many Israelis seem them as cold-blooded killers.
The list of prisoners eligible for release includes those who killed or wounded Israelis or killed Palestinian informers.
“The murderers will be released,” read the front-page headline in Israel’s Yedioth Ahronoth daily Monday.
Netanyahu faced opposition in his cabinet, though he pushed through Sunday’s approval with a comfortable 13-7 vote, with two abstentions.
On the streets of Israel and the West Bank, hope mixed with skepticism.
“I believe it’s time to give it a chance and to try again,” said Tel Aviv resident Eliot Diamant. Another city resident, Eliezer Zaiger, said he believes negotiations won’t benefit Israel.
That view was shared by Issam Baker in the West Bank city of Ramallah. He said little will change on the ground for Palestinians and that previous rounds of talks have not produced results.
Gavriel Fiske and AP contributed to this report.