Israeli-Palestinian talks begin over dinner in Washington
Israeli vote to release Palestinian prisoners opened door for 1st negotiations in 3 years
When the Ramadan fast is broken tonight, there's one dinner where the conversation will be just as important as the food.
The two top peace negotiators from Israel and the Palestinian territories will sit down for dinner in Washington Monday evening. It's the first time the two sides will be holding face-to-face negotiations in nearly three years (although those talks broke off after just one day, so the last substantial talks were really two years before that, in 2008).
The talks follow several months of shuttle diplomacy by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who has made Middle East peace a priority. He has traveled to the region on six occasions this year to convince Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to restart peace talks.
"I know the negotiations are going to be tough, but I also know the consequences of not trying will be worse," Kerry said in Washington Monday.
He urged negotiators to reach "reasonable compromises on tough, complicated, emotional and symbolic issues."
Ex-U.S. ambassador to oversee talks
Tonight's dinner meeting at Kerry's residence is expected to serve as an icebreaker, bringing together Israel's justice minister, Tzipi Livni, and Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator.
They will be joined by Martin Indyk, the former U.S. ambassador to Israel under Bill Clinton's administration who was a key part of the failed 2000 Camp David peace talks.
As the U.S. special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, Indyk will serve as the lead negotiator during the talks, which could last up to nine months.
"It is a daunting and humbling challenge but one that I cannot desist from," Indyk said of the appointment, which was announced by Kerry a few hours ahead of the negotiators' dinner.
Jerusalem, refugees not on agenda
The initial discussions, which are expected to continue on Tuesday, are characterized as "talks about the talks" — an opportunity for both sides to set an agenda for future negotiations to take place in the Mideast later this year.
This preliminary round is not expected to include a discussion of some of the major stumbling blocks to peace between the Palestinians and Israelis. Sticking points include the status of Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees and their descendants, who left their homes or were forced out when Israel declared its independence in 1948.
The issue of Israeli construction of settlements in the West Bank is also seen by the Palestinian leadership as a real obstacle to peace. About 500,000 Israelis live in settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The international community, including Canada, considers the settlements illegal, although Israel disputes this interpretation of international law.
Abbas has insisted in the past that Israel must agree to halt new settlement construction before Palestinians will agree to talk, but it appears he dropped the demand after Israel agreed on Sunday to release 104 Palestinians being held in Israeli prisons.
Prisoners' release contentious
Many of the 104 have been convicted of killing Israeli civilians or soldiers. Most of those on the list have served 20 to 30 years in Israeli custody. To many Palestinians, the prisoners are celebrated as heroes, fighting for Palestinian independence. But they are viewed by many in Israel as cold-blooded killers and terrorists.
The release of the prisoners is controversial in Israel. After the cabinet voted 13 to seven on Sunday to release the Palestinians, demonstrations were held outside of Netanyahu's Jerusalem office.
"This moment is not easy for me, is not easy for the cabinet ministers, and is not easy especially for the bereaved families, whose feelings I understand," Netanyahu said. "But there are moments in which tough decisions must be made for the good of the nation, and this is one of those moments."
The Middle East peace process, now more than 40 years old, has seen lots of negotiations, a few proposals that sparked hope, and, ultimately, much disappointment. Expectations for this round of talks are low.
"It's about time we have these talks," said Micha Perry, a resident of Jerusalem. "Unfortunately, I don't believe anything good will come out of it because both sides are not ready for it."
In Gaza, Hassan Jabr says the talks will "not get a result."
"It will be only repeating other talks," he said.
By agreeing to start negotiations without first obtaining a guarantee from Israel to halt the building of settlements in the West Bank, the Palestinian side has given up even before the talks have begun, Jabr said.
With files from The Associated Press