"Our objective will be to achieve a final status agreement over the course of the next nine months," Secretary of State John Kerry said Tuesday after Israeli-Palestinian talks opened for the first time in three years. "We all understand the goal that we're working towards: two states living side by side in peace and security."
Kerry, together with Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Palestinian Chief Negotiator Saeb Erekat, spoke at the State Department in Washington. Earlier that morning the three met with President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden at the White House.
The Israeli-Palestinian talks, which began Monday and continued Tuesday, included both meetings with the United States present and also meetings between the Israelis and Palestinians by themselves, Kerry said. (See full text of his remarks and brief comments by Dr. Erekat and Minister Livni here.) The Washington meetings dealt with procedures for the talks. Israeli and Palestinian negotiators will meet again within two weeks either in Israel or the West Bank, he said, to begin the actual negotiations.
Previous negotiations focused on supposedly easier issues, leaving the essential core issues for a future that never came. This time, however, the intention is to deal with those central issues from the start, Kerry said.
"The parties have agreed here today that all of the final status issues, all of the core issues, and all other issues are all on the table for negotiation," he said. "And they are on the table with one simple goal: a view to ending the conflict, ending the claims."
The final status issues that Kerry referred to include these: the final borders of the two states - Israel and Palestine; the status of Jerusalem, which includes globally revered holy sites of Judaism, Christianity and Islam; and the status of Palestinian refugees who in 1948 were driven from or left their homes in what is now Israel.
The United Nations adopted a plan and map for partitioning the Palestinian lands into two states - Israeli and Palestinian - in 1947, but the borders have been in conflict ever since.
An Arab-Israeli war in 1948 ended in a 1949 armistice in which the Palestinians, under Jordanian rule, lost 60 percent of the land allotted to them in the original partition plan, most of it to Israel, with Gaza going to Egypt. No peace treaty was ever concluded. The resulting borders remained in place until June 4, 1967, when Israel, in what is known as the Six-Day War, seized control of the Palestinian territory on the West Bank of the Jordan River, including East Jerusalem, and Gaza. Since then numerous UN resolutions have called for a return to the 1967 borders. However the Israeli military occupation has persisted.
Over the past few decades successive Israeli governments have promoted, enabled, and supported construction of a network of massive "settlements" - actually vast apartment complexes - across the West Bank, housing several hundred thousand Israeli "settlers" in occupied Palestinian territory in violation of international law. Any resolution of the border issue has to also address the dismantling of these massive settlements and relocation of their residents.
The rise of religious extremism both in Israel and among the Palestinians adds further difficulty to any peace process. In the United States, we hear much about Palestinian Islamic extremists - for example the shadowy groups who fire rockets from Gaza into Israel every time some slight possible peace move emerges. But a Jewish religious extremist assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 after he signed the Oslo Accords with the PLO, weak as those accords were. Ironically, current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was among those egging on the anti-Rabin, anti-peace fanatics in the lead-up to Rabin's murder.
Since then fanatical Jewish extremism has played an increasingly large role within Israel. Just last week, near Jerusalem, a group of ultra-Orthodox men stoned two buses and smashed windows with a hammer after authorities interfered with a fanatic's effort to get a woman passenger to move to the back of the bus.
It may be that a section of Israel's ruling establishment now sees that the situation has gotten out of hand. A powerful and highly disturbing new Israeli movie, "The Gatekeepers," interviews six former chiefs of Israel's security agency, Shin Bet, who themselves have been involved in some of the worst repression of Palestinians over the years. They all conclude that the occupation was a mistake, and that peace talks with the Palestinians and establishment of a sovereign Palestinian state are necessary.
However, after years of incomplete and failed negotiations, punctuated by two Palestinian mass uprisings and outbreaks of violence, both Israeli and Palestinian, Kerry's announcement of the start of the new talks has been met with widespread skepticism on all sides.
He addressed that directly in his remarks Tuesday. "While I understand the skepticism," he said, "I don't think we have time for it."
"We cannot pass along to another generation the responsibility of ending a conflict that is in our power to resolve in our time," Kerry said. "They should not be expected to bear that burden, and we should not leave it to them."
The content of the negotiations will be kept confidential, Kerry said. "I will be the only one, by agreement, authorized to comment publicly on the talks, in consultation, obviously, with the parties. That means that no one should consider any reports, articles, or other - or even rumors - reliable, unless they come directly from me, and I guarantee you they won't."
Photo: Secretary of State John Kerry, Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, and Palestinian Chief Negotiator Saeb Erekat address reporters on the Middle East Peace Process Talks at the Department of State in Washington, D.C., on July 30, 2013. State Department photo