WASHINGTON — Hours before Israeli and Palestinian leaders met today to end a three-year freeze on negotiations, Secretary of State John Kerry named veteran diplomat Martin Indyk as the Obama administration’s special envoy to shepherd talks toward a final settlement of the decades-old conflict.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas sent senior negotiators to Washington, showing what Kerry called “courageous leadership” on an issue that the Obama administration hopes to revive within the next nine months.
Kerry told reporters here that Indyk, who served as U.S. ambassador to Israel and as assistant secretary of state for Near East Affairs during the Clinton administration, would work closely with the parties to “navigate the path to peace and to avoid its many pitfalls.” Frank Lowenstein, a longtime foreign policy adviser to Kerry, was named deputy envoy.
Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat were scheduled to meet U.S. counterparts for dinner tonight, with talks set to begin Tuesday morning. The State Department said this inaugural session would wrap up with a statement issued sometime in the afternoon. That first announcement will be closely parsed by analysts who are eager to see whether Kerry’s team — led by diplomats who have tried and failed previously to broker a deal — can crack through stances that are even more hardened by now.
In brief remarks, Indyk called it a “daunting and humbling challenge.” Kerry and other politicians warned against getting overly optimistic for a breakthrough at this early stage.
“Many difficult choices lie ahead for the negotiators, for the leaders, as we seek reasonable compromises on tough, complicated, emotional and symbolic issues,” Kerry told reporters.
Analysts praised Kerry’s determination and said Indyk knows the challenges.
“He’s clear-eyed. He sees a solution as being important to the United States and to Israel and Palestine as well, and that’s a darn good place to start,” said Arthur Hughes, a former ambassador to Yemen and scholar at the Middle East Institute. “It’s something we can’t not try.”
Kerry, who has traveled frequently to the region since he became secretary of state, is so invested in the talks that he’s unlikely to be able to hand them off to an envoy, said Aaron David Miller, a vice president at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a former adviser to Democratic and Republican secretaries of state.
“John Kerry is going to be attached to these negotiations like a barnacle to the side of a boat if they’re going to work,” Miller said. “The amount of time and energy invested means that he is now permanently associated with these negotiations.”
Miller noted there is enough doubt about the possibility of success and risk that it “heightens the urgency to keep the talks afloat.”
“It’s a real investment trap for him,” Miller said.
Just as soon as plans for a summit were announced, both Israelis and Palestinians began violating an unofficial agreement to keep the talks quiet, quarreling publicly about conditions and goals.
On Sunday, the Israeli Cabinet narrowly voted in favor of releasing 104 Palestinian prisoners, one of the demands of the Palestinians before agreeing to direct talks.
At the White House, spokesman Josh Earnest said the administration welcomed Israel’s decision to release the prisoners, calling it a “positive step forward.” He also praised Netanyahu for an “interest in making the difficult and courageous decisions that will move this process forward.”
Plenty of other contentious issues remain, including setting a starting point for border talks. Palestinians insist Israel must go back to its borders from before the 1967 war, when Israel captured the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, all areas at the core of a future Palestinian state. Israel has rejected that in the past.
Another big snare is the issue of Israeli settlements. Israel has resisted setting a timetable for a slowdown in construction, arguing that such thorny issues should be worked out in face-to-face talks, not by setting preconditions.
The Israeli Cabinet on Sunday approved a draft bill that, if it makes it through the Knesset, would put to referendum any peace agreement that comes from the rejuvenated talks. Opponents of the bill say it just adds one more hurdle on the road to a peace deal.
President Barack Obama has no plans to meet with the Israeli and Palestinian negotiators while they are in town, though that might change.
“There’s a role for the United States to play in terms of encouraging and facilitating and cajoling, but ultimately when it comes down to making decisions, it’s going to be the responsibility of the negotiators in both sides to strike an agreement,” Earnest said.
The White House took credit for getting the talks restarted, saying that the process was kicked off by Obama’s visit to the region in March and that Kerry has been traveling there frequently “at the president’s direction.”
“We’re certainly encouraged that the two parties are coming to Washington and beginning their conversations,” Earnest said. “But we’re also cognizant of the hard work that remains over the next nine months.”
He wouldn’t characterize whether Obama is optimistic, saying that “it’s obviously a good sign that both sides are sitting down.”