Israel and Palestinians agree to tackle tougher issues in peace talks

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Control of Jerusalem and the claims of Palestinian refugees are among the issues that will be on the table, Secretary of State John F. Kerry says.

Israeli and Palestinian negotiators agreed Tuesday that their peace talks would tackle even the most politically sensitive issues between them, such as control of Jerusalem and the claims of Palestinian refugees, U.S. officials said as a first round of talks came to an end.

The scope of the talks had previously been ambiguous. President Obama said in a May 2011 speech that they should first focus on the relatively easier issues of borders and security.

But Secretary of State John F. Kerry said at a news conference Tuesday that the two sides “have agreed today that all of the final status issues, all of the core issues and all other issues are on the table for negotiations…. They are on the table with a single goal: a view to ending the conflict, ending the claims.”

Kerry’s statement “has now fleshed it out and made more specific that they’re going for a full agreement, to bring an end of conflict and an end of claims,” said Robert Danin, a former U.S. diplomat in the Middle East who is now with the Council on Foreign Relations. “This is a maximalist agenda.”

The talks, which began Monday night after four months of shuttle diplomacy in the region by Kerry, will resume in two weeks in either Israel or the West Bank, with the goal of reaching a complete peace deal in nine months, officials said.

The claims of refugees who fled Israel when it was created and the control of Jerusalem, considered a sacred city by both sides, are highly charged issues and will make a peace deal far harder to achieve. Kerry acknowledged that “there is no shortage of passionate skeptics” about the peace effort he has been leading.

Kerry, Israeli negotiator Tzipi Livni and Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat cited at the news conference the need to close a deal that has been elusive during more than 20 years of negotiations.

Livni told Erekat that though the two sides had spent long hours in negotiations, “we didn’t reach the deal …that’s something we need to do now.”

Obama’s role in the event was carefully circumscribed. He invited negotiators to the White House on Tuesday morning for a brief meeting with him and Vice President Joe Biden to show his support. He made no public comments.

Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. peace negotiator, said Obama wanted to calibrate his involvement, showing support but not too much engagement while the effort is in an early stage. Later, if necessary, he can wade in further to try to push the talks forward, said Miller, who is now a vice president at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.

At this stage, “he doesn’t want to be shackled to a process that is far from resolution and could still collapse,” Miller said.

How assertive U.S. officials will be as the talks progress remains unclear. Kerry said U.S. officials would act as “facilitators” of the talks, which he said must be led by the two sides.

But officials didn’t rule out the U.S. offering “bridging” proposals to try to move the talks forward if they reach an impasse. In 2000, when President Clinton came close to reaching a Mideast peace deal, the two sides said they were stuck and asked Washington to suggest a way ahead.

Palestinians have urged an aggressive U.S. role, while many Israelis have been wary of too much American pressure.

Officials disclosed that a $4-billion economic development plan devised by the U.S. as an incentive for Palestinian cooperation in a peace deal would be funded by private companies with no government money. That will probably make the deal more palatable in the United States, analysts said, but it could also make it harder to realize.

The officials kept many details of the negotiations secret and pledged to continue to keep the talks out of public view for fear that disclosure of sensitive details could bring resistance that could sink the negotiations.

Danin said the peace effort is hard for outsiders to evaluate because so little has been disclosed about what private commitments Kerry may have made to each side to get them back to the table.

“We know a little more than we knew yesterday, but there’s still a lot of the back story that we don’t know,” he said.

 

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