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Officials hail ‘hugely significant breakthrough’ in peace talks

Mideast Quartet calls on sides to avoid steps that would undermine trust; J Street commends Kerry’s insistence on media blackout

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Tony Blair (Kobi Gideon/Flash90)
Tony Blair (Kobi Gideon/Flash90)

The resumption Monday-Tuesday of Israeli-Palestinian final-status peace negotiations after a three-year hiatus was greeted with cautious optimism by some international players, with observers hailing the mere fact that the sides appear to be making a serious efforts to resolve all outstanding issues.

“This is a hugely significant breakthrough. The fact that direct final status talks are starting again sends an immense signal of hope across the region and wider world,” said Middle East Quartet Representative Tony Blair. “There is no doubt that the road to peace will be hard. But the consequences of leaving the peace process in disrepair would be so much harder.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas have shown they are ready “to take risks with their own public opinion to push forward and engage in negotiation,” Blair added.

In a separate statement, the Quartet – which consists of the United Nations, the United States, the European Union and Russia – said it hoped the new round of talks would be “substantive and continuous,” echoing the promise of US Secretary of State John Kerry as talks took their first shaky steps Tuesday.

The Quartet statement called upon Israelis and Palestinians to “take every possible step to promote conditions conducive to the success of the negotiating process, and to refrain from actions that undermine trust.”

Kerry said on Tuesday that the two sides would hold discussions for nine months on reaching a final status deal, with all issues on the table. While analysts have been pessimistic over the chances for talks, Kerry, Israeli negotiator Tzipi Livni and Palestinian counterpart Saeb Erekat spoke positively Tuesday of the chances to reach peace after a three-year break in talks.

The president of the dovish pro-Israel lobby J Street, Jeremy Ben-Ami, said the relaunch of the peace talks — whose first round officially commenced Monday night and concluded Tuesday, to be continued in two weeks in Israel or the Palestinian territories — was clearly a serious effort. “The parties are aware of how tough the road ahead will be but there seems to be a real commitment and determination to move forward,” he said in a statement.

Kerry, who succeeded the coax the two parties back to the negotiating table after weeks of tireless shuttle diplomacy, is correct to press for a total media blackout during the course of the negotiations, Ben-Ami said. “Kerry is very smart to insist on confidentiality that will allow room to negotiate and to make concessions and to prevent grandstanding to the media,” he remarked.

Yet not everyone was happy about Kerry’s declaration on Tuesday that he will be the only one commenting on the progress of the talks and that the negotiations would remain behind closed doors.

“That’s not really a very democratic idea,” Channel 2 diplomatic correspondent Udi Segal said.

Channel 10’s diplomatic correspondent Moav Vardi remarked that in his press conference Kerry failed to present any terms of the reference for the coming nine months of negotiations, suggesting that Washington handed separate letters to both sides. “So no mutual basis for the negotiations had been achieved.”

Other analysts hailed the fact that the parties agreed to discuss all of the outstanding core issues such as refugees, borders, security and Jerusalem. “It’s not that other moments of negotiation didn’t include all of the final status issues. But in recent years all sorts of ideas for restarting talks have been floated, including dealing with certain issues over others,” wrote Brent Sasley, who teaches Israeli and Middle East politics at the University of Texas at Arlington.

“Netanyahu also wants to focus on security, while Palestinians want to focus on borders and settlements,” Sasley wrote in the Daily Beast’s Open Zion blog. “Putting everything on the table means that both sides get what they want. It also allows them to connect different issues together, making trade-offs where necessary and making it easier to see the final completed puzzle.”

However, Sasley acknowledged, “the downside to including everything is that if the talks fail, they’ll fail spectacularly. But that sense of doom might just be enough to keep all sides going.”

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