The participants included top aides to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who with Kerry as host, sat down over an iftar dinner – the meal when Muslims break their daily fast during Ramadan.
Kerry made a series of visits to the Middle East during his first six months in office urging the two sides to resume negotiations and to make “reasonable compromises.”
Talks are expected to continue for nine months, and major hurdles remain before any kind of a deal can be reached.
Kerry admitted, “It is no secret this is a difficult process. If it were easy, it would have happened a long time ago,” and added that “Many difficult choices lie ahead for the negotiators and for the leaders as we seek reasonable compromises on tough, complicated, emotional, and symbolic issues”.
The talks began over dinner between Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Yitzhak Molcho, an aide to Netanyahu, and the Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat and Mohammed Ishtyeh.
Kerry said with his newly named envoy for Israeli-Palestinian peace, former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk, at his side.
Kerry met separately with each side first before they all came together the dinner meeting. Kerry’s delegation of four were seated on one side of the table with the Israeli and Palestinian guests on the other side. Livni and Erekat, the top negotiators for the two sides, were seated side by side.
Earlier Monday, Abbas told journalists in Cairo that in the final resolution he does not want a single Israeli – civilian or soldier – on Palestinian land.
In a statement that indicated the seriousness with which the Israelis are approaching the talks, Livni told a Reuters interviewer, “It is not a favor to the United States or to the Palestinians, this is something that we need to do,” she said.
Kerry has been praised by Middle East analysts for convincing the two sides to resume talks, but everyone realizes there are great difficulties ahead.
Some of the major issues include Jewish settlements on the West Bank, the status of Jerusalem, the fate of Palestinian refugees, and the formation of border
Martin Indyk, Kerry’s new envoy for Israeli-Palestinian peace, noted that when Kerry began his efforts to revive the peace talks six months ago, most observers thought he was on a “mission impossible”.
Both Netanyahu and Abbas face enormous difficulties in convincing some of their own people to accept the compromises that will be necessary to establish any kind of lasting peace.
Peace talks are unpopular with some of the Fatah movement which governs the West Bank, and are even more strongly opposed by the Hamas group that rules the Gaza Strip. And some of Netanyahu’s coalition partners are against the creation of a Palestinian state.
So both sides will be having to negotiate with their own people back home, as well as with each other.
The last peace talks collapsed in late 2010 over the issue of Israel’s construction of Jewish settlements on occupied Palestinian land it seized in the 1967 war. Image/AP