WASHINGTON » Diplomats long have stressed the urgency of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, yet as a new round of Mideast peace talks begins, Secretary of State John Kerry thinks there are more reasons than ever to move quickly.
In Kerry’s thinking, time is running out.
Even if Israel wanted to, it would be difficult to remove mushrooming Israeli West Bank settlements whose population has doubled since 2000. Demographers have warned that it will be only a matter of a few years until Arabs outnumber Jews in the Holy Land. And last year, the U.N. General Assembly recognized a state of Palestine in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem — a move that could let the Palestinians take their complaints over settlements to the International Criminal Court.
The new round of talks, which resume today in Washington, follows six months of shuttle diplomacy to restart negotiations that broke down in 2008. An attempt to restart them in 2010 failed after a single day. And before that, scores of diplomats have failed to broker peace.
After five years of diplomatic stalemate, there has been a flurry of activity in recent days to set the stage for the talks that all sides agree will be difficult.
On Sunday, the Israeli parliament voted to free 104 long-held Palestinian prisoners — some who killed or wounded Israelis — in four stages linked to progress in the talks, expected to last nine months. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took heavy criticism from conservatives and families of those killed by the prisoners. One protester outside Netanyahu’s office held a sign depicting a prison release form that was stamped with handprints made of red paint to symbolize blood.
On Monday, Kerry announced that Martin Indyk, who played key roles in the Clinton administration’s multiple — but unsuccessful — efforts to broker peace between Israel and Syria and Israel and the Palestinians, has assumed day-to-day responsibility for negotiations.
The Israeli side is led by chief negotiator Tzipi Livni, a former foreign minister who was active in the George W. Bush administration’s ill-fated peace talks with the Palestinians in Annapolis, Md., and Yitzhak Molcho, a veteran adviser to Netanyahu who was part of the Israeli team involved in Obama’s two previous attempts to broker negotiations.
The Palestinian team is led by chief negotiator Saeb Erekat and President Mahmoud Abbas’ adviser, Mohammed Shtayyeh, both of whom have been major players in failed negotiations with the Israelis since 1991.
Kerry spoke for about 45 minutes with representatives from the Israeli negotiating team late Monday and then for another period of about 45 minutes with the Palestinian side before sitting down for dinner on the top floor of the State Department. While he talked with the Palestinians, the Israeli team relaxed on an eighth-floor terrace overlooking the illuminated Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument.
The 90-minute dinner was billed as an Iftar meal, which breaks the day of fasting for Muslims during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. They sat at a rectangular table — five U.S. officials lining one side and the two Israeli and two Palestinian negotiators on the other — to dine on sweet corn and shell bean soup, grilled grouper, saffron risotto, summer vegetables and apricot upside-down cake.
"We’re happy to welcome you. It’s really wonderful to have you here — very, very special. We have, obviously, not much to talk about at all," Kerry joked after the participants sat down shortly after 9 p.m. at the table topped with a mint green cloth and goblets of mango iced tea.
The State Department would not disclose details of the discussions, saying only that they were "constructive and productive."
Livni told Israeli media there was a "good environment" at the dinner. "I think we are starting talks out of a deep belief that it is in the interest of both sides and I really hope that it will continue that way," she said.
While reaching an agreement "won’t be easy," Livni said, "I mainly believe that giving up is not an option for us. This is an Israeli interest." She declined to offer details, citing "a main agreement that everything that is said in the room remains in the room."
Livni arrived in Washington by train from New York City, where she met with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
"There is a lot of cynicism and skepticism and pessimism, but there is also hope," she told The Associated Press after meeting with the secretary-general.
Shibley Telhami, a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland who is familiar with the State Department’s work to restart the talks, said Israel’s decision to release Palestinian prisoners was an important gesture that buys time and builds confidence. But gestures are "not going to transform the mistrust," he added.
"I think there are two types of people — those who think a two-state solution is no longer possible and those who think that while it might be possible, there’s not much time left to do it. The reason being? Settlements, especially in east Jerusalem," said Telhami, who served as adviser to Middle East Special Envoy George Mitchell during Obama’s first term.
The Palestinians want a state in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem — territories Israel captured in 1967. Since that war, Israel has built dozens of settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, now home to more than a half-million Israelis. That makes a partition deal increasingly difficult, some say impossible.
Abbas also sought a freeze in settlement building. In guidelines for the talks, Kerry stipulated earlier this month that both sides refrain from unilateral steps, according to a senior Palestinian official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of a gag order Kerry slapped on negotiators. The Palestinians understand this to mean that while there will be no freeze, Israel will slow settlement construction and refrain from announcing new projects,
In exchange, the Palestinians have vowed not to go to the United Nations as long as talks are underway.
Monday marked Day No. 1 of final status negotiations on a nine-month timetable with the idea that if progress is going well, talks could be extended. "They have agreed to work together through the course of that time and the secretary absolutely feels that time is of the essence," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said, adding that nine months does not represent a deadline or cutoff date.
Associated Press writers Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations and Ian Deitch in Jerusalem contributed to this report.