(CNSNews.com) – The Obama administration announced Sunday that Israeli and Palestinian representatives will meet in Washington on Monday evening to resume talks aimed at reaching a “final status agreement” that has eluded a succession of Israeli, Palestinian and U.S. leaders for decades.
The State Department’s newly-posted Monday schedule for Secretary of State John Kerry shows that he will host an iftar dinner – marking the end of the day’s Ramadan fasting – at the State Department on Monday night for the head of the Israeli and Palestinian negotiating teams. The event is closed to the media.
In a brief statement that made no reference to multiple past failures or the magnitude of the challenge ahead, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the meetings on Monday night and Tuesday would be “an opportunity to develop a procedural workplan for how the parties can proceed with the negotiations in the coming months.”
“The United States and the parties are looking forward to beginning these substantive discussions and in moving forward toward a final status agreement,” she said.
Psaki quoted Kerry – who has made a series of trips to the region since March to prod the process along – as commending Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas for demonstrating “a willingness to make difficult decisions that have been instrumental in getting to this point.”
Kerry did not elaborate on the “difficult decisions,” but Netanyahu earlier Sunday grappled with a bitterly-divided cabinet before achieving a vote on a phased release of 104 long-term Palestinian prisoners, including some convicted of serious terrorist attacks. The final vote went 13-7, with four members of Netanyahu’s Likud party refusing to support the measure.
Outside Netanyahu’s office Israelis protesting against the decision chanted, “No release of murderers of children” and accused the prime minister of betrayal.
Netanyahu in an open letter to Israelis called the decision an “incredibly difficult” one that hurts bereaved families of terror victims and clashes with “the principle of justice” – but asserted it was necessary to “ensure Israel’s essential national interests.” The P.A. welcomed the decision to release what it called “political prisoners.”
On the P.A. side Abbas has made no concession, in public at least, although for several hundred Palestinians who protested in Ramallah on Sunday simply agreeing to return to talks constitutes a “concession” to Israel.
According to the State Department the Israeli delegation will be led by Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, a former foreign minister and opposition leader who joined Netanyahu’s coalition cabinet after elections early this year.
The P.A. team will be led by Saeb Erekat, a PLO veteran whose involvement in negotiations goes back to the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference and the subsequent talks that led to the signing of the interim Oslo accords in 1993.
During the Oslo talks a set of especially thorny issues dividing the two sides were set aside for future negotiation, in the hope that limited Palestinian self-rule and bilateral security cooperation would over time help to build the trust necessary for both sides to make future compromises.
Two decades on, however, the sides remain far apart on those same issues – the interwoven question of final borders and the future of Israeli settlements in areas claimed by the Palestinians; the status of Jerusalem; and the “right of return” of Palestinian refugees who fled during earlier conflicts and their descendants – numbering more than five million today, according to the U.N.
Jerusalem’s future includes the particularly vexed issue of the Temple Mount, location of the biblical Temples and the holiest site in Judaism, but also home to Islam’s third most-revered mosque.
Since Oslo, the closest Israel and the P.A. came to reaching a final agreement was in the summer of 2000, when at talks hosted by the Clinton administration at Camp David then Prime Minister Ehud Barak made an unprecedented offer of the Gaza Strip, around 95 percent of the West Bank, and parts of Jerusalem. The Temple Mount would remain under Israeli sovereignty, but the Palestinians would keep “custodianship.”
Then P.A. leader Yasser Arafat baulked – Jerusalem was the clincher for him, officials on both sides said later – and the marathon talks collapsed.
That September Palestinians launched an uprising and terror campaign that in the ensuing years cost more than 1,000 Israeli and more than 4,000 Palestinian lives.
Adding to subsequent complications, the Islamist group Hamas in 2006 defeated Abbas’ Fatah in legislative elections and the following year seized control of the Gaza Strip amid bloody clashes with Fatah forces. Since then – and to this day – the P.A.’s authority is limited to the West Bank and even if it reaches an accord with Israel it will not apply to Gaza, whose rulers have vowed never to recognize Israel.