Peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians got a boost Tuesday morning, with US President Barack Obama holding a joint meeting with both sides as the first negotiations in three years kicked off.
The move is a shift for Obama, who has mostly stayed on the sidelines during the last several months while his Secretary of State John Kerry has shepherded the two sides to resuming talks.
Obama held the meeting at the White House. Before seeing Obama on Tuesday, the negotiators met together without American mediators. After leaving the White House they returned to the State Department for a three-way meeting with Kerry and top aides.
Kerry was expected to close out the round with a statement detailing any progress.
Officials from all parties expressed cautious optimism about the negotiation’s prospects for success as they began Tuesday morning.
The Israeli negotiators — Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Yitzhak Molcho, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s personal envoy to the talks — began meetings with their Palestinian counterparts and their American interlocutors on Tuesday morning. The sides held an informal meeting on Monday night.
Tuesday’s talks were expected to last for approximately three hours, with the last 45 minutes devoted to trilateral negotiations between Kerry, Livni and chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat. At this stage, the American, Israeli and Palestinian delegations are still working to hammer out the logistics and conditions for future rounds of talks, which are expected to take place in the region.
Speaking from Latvia on a state visit Tuesday, President Shimon Peres said Israel was hoping for the best.
“In the 65 years of Israel’s existence, during which we were forced to fight seven wars, we have always aspired for peace and democracy –- the negotiations started yesterday and we hope for the best,” Peres said. “Israel’s desire, and the purpose of the talks, is the creation of two states for two peoples — living side by side with economic and scientific cooperation.”
On Wednesday or Thursday Livni and Molcho will return to Israel. A tentative date for the second round of talks has not been set yet.
On Monday, Peres called Martin Indyk, the newly appointed US envoy to the negotiations and wished him luck on his mission to help the sides reach an agreement. “You took upon yourself a mission important like no other and I thank you for it,” Peres told Indyk, a former ambassador to Israel. “I have my fingers crossed for your success and for the progress of the negotiations that will bring a peaceful solution to both sides.”
Peace talks kicked off informally in Washington Monday evening with an Iftar dinner, a traditional dinner marking the close of the daily fast during the month of Ramadan.
Livni described the mood at the dinner as “very good” and even friendly, emphasizing that both sides were “serious” and had learned from personal experience in earlier rounds of talks.
“After years of stalls in the talks and months of American engagement, it is time that we sit down and talk about our fate,” Livni said Monday in an interview to Army Radio.
Speaking to a handful of reporters at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, Livni said that all issues would be on the table, but that in an effort to reestablish trust, the sides had agreed not to release any information about the actual content of the negotiations and would let Kerry fill the role of spokesman.
“In the past, both sides were also serious, and we started out that way, but then, after a while, we’d begin to see al-Jazeera reports with information,” Livni said. She emphasized throughout the conversation that both sides had made repeated commitments to adhere to a code of silence regarding substantive issues and progress of the negotiations.
“The basic principle of the talks is that nothing is over until everything is over,” said Livni, explaining that in that way neither side could claim to have made achievements at the other’s expense.
“Though we all know each other and have all been in the room before, we are not continuing talks, we are beginning talks,” said Livni. “The fact that we are familiar with the other side and the issues only aids in the talks.”
Asked whether the talks in Washington would lead to a meeting between Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas, Livni said that such a meeting was not a condition for continuing negotiations but that the time was ripe for it.
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.”
Earlier Monday, the State Department announced that Israelis and Palestinians had agreed to a nine-month timeline for final-status negotiations.
“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 the dinner, Kerry briefed US President Barack Obama on the talks. The two regularly meet on Mondays, but State Department officials said that the upcoming negotiations were a “big part” of this Monday’s meeting.
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.
Psaki complimented Sunday’s 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, requiring a referendum for any compromise involving Israel relinquishing sovereign territory. She said 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.
Kerry himself noted Monday 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.”
Kerry met with the Israeli delegates on their arrival in Washington early Monday, and then met with the Palestinian delegation immediately preceding the festive dinner.
Before the dinner, Livni and Indyk held a meeting at the Mayflower Hotel, the unofficial headquarters of the Israeli delegation.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.