By Anne Gearan and Debbi Wilgoren / WashingtonPost.com
Secretary of State John F. Kerry said Tuesday that Israeli and Palestinian negotiators have agreed to launch formal peace talks within the next two weeks, in hopes of forging a comprehensive agreement over the next nine months on the creation of an independent Palestinian state.
The chief U.S. diplomat made the announcement after meetings between Israeli and Palestinian teams in Washington on Monday night and Tuesday morning. They were the first serious, face-to-face peace talks between the two governments in five years.
Kerry said all so-called final status issues — such as borders, the status of Jerusalem, and the right of return for Palestinian refugees — will be up for discussion, without preconditions. The goal, he said, is to reach a “final-status” agreement within nine months.
“The time has come for a lasting peace,” Kerry said, speaking in the State Department’s ornate Benjamin Franklin room in front of a row of Israeli, Palestinian, and American flags.
In what he described as a “new moment of possibility,” Kerry said Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Palestinian Authority envoy Saeb Erekat will meet again within the next two weeks, either in Israel or the Palestinian territories.
He said the negotiators had agreed to take on all the thorny issues that have sunk past efforts to create an independent Palestine.
Earlier Tuesday, President Obama and Vice President Biden met with the negotiators at the White House.
The teams gathered at the State Department Monday night for an iftar dinner to celebrate the end of the daily fast that marks the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Each team also met separately with Kerry.
Tuesday morning, the negotiators had talks with special envoy for Middle East peace Martin Indyk and briefly heard from the president.
“It’s no secret that this is a difficult process. If it were easy, it would have happened a long time ago,” Kerry said Monday night. He said the negotiators would seek “reasonable compromises on tough, complicated, emotional, and symbolic issues.”
Many of the core issues that the Israelis and Palestinians must address have remained unchanged for decades: how to arrange for Israel’s security needs; whether, where, and how to divide Jerusalem to create a Palestinian capital; what to do about Palestinian refugees and their desire to return home; and where to draw the borders for a future state of Palestine.
But the continued growth of Jewish settlements in the “West Bank” [Judea and Samaria] — and what to do with them if a Palestinian state is created — presents an increasingly thorny challenge. [Palestinians want the right to “return” and live in Israel, but no Jews should live in a Palestinian state?]
In the past five years, the population of Jewish settlements in the West Bank has grown by about 20 percent, and pro-settler politicians have become major players in Israel’s government.
About 340,000 to 360,000 people live in Jewish settlements in the West Bank, according to Israeli government data. An additional 300,000 Jews live in East Jerusalem, which Palestinians claim as their future capital.