Mideast Peace Talks On Again, But Roadblocks Remain

Only a few days have passed since Secretary of State John Kerry announced that Israelis and Palestinians have laid the groundwork for a resumption of peace talks and that negotiators would convene in Washington in "the next week or so." Kerry received praise from all corners for his hard work and diplomatic skills to at least get both sides back to the negotiating table. But a few cracks are already appearing in the plans, with both side laying out conditions before talks get underway.

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It's been more than four years since Israelis and Palestinians held direct peace talks. Today, Israeli officials said talks will resume next week in Washington. The State Department will not confirm that date, but a spokesperson said Secretary of State John Kerry expects negotiations to begin soon.

NPR's Jackie Northam has this story about the opportunity and the obstacles.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Secretary Kerry has worked intensively on the moribund peace process since he took office in February, traveling six times to the Middle East to meet with Israeli and Palestinian officials. Last Friday, he finally had a breakthrough. Kerry sounded cautiously optimistic.

SECRETARY JOHN KERRY: The representatives of two proud people today have decided that the difficult road ahead is worth traveling, that in order for Israelis and Palestinians to live together side by side in peace and security, they must begin by sitting at the table together in direct talks.

NORTHAM: Kerry said the best way to give the negotiations a chance was to keep them private. And he insisted that he would be the only person to comment on progress.

Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow with the American Task Force for Palestine, says Kerry has played his cards very close to his chest.

HUSSEIN IBISH: We really know very little. Instead of verbal and/or written agreements, commitments, assurances, we have no idea what the parties have promised him and what he has proposed as a formula. Some prisoner exchange appears to certainly be part of the package, but I think it obviously goes much deeper than that and we just don't know.

NORTHAM: Ibish says the dearth of information might be for the best, that the time may not be ripe to present what could be perceived as concessions, simply to get the two sides to the negotiating table.

Daniel Kurtzer, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Egypt, says Kerry showed deft diplomatic skill in getting this far in the process.

DANIEL KURTZER: Kerry has done what few of his predecessors have in the past 20 years, and that is to build a - what I would call a strategic architecture for this peace process, rather than simply trying to get the two sides back to negotiations.

NORTHAM: Kurtzer says Kerry approached the Israelis and Palestinians differently than his predecessors. He says instead of addressing all the main issues ahead of any talks, which could grind down his efforts, the secretary handled a few concerns of both sides.

KURTZER: The Israelis make clear all the time that security is their major concern. And therefore, Kerry engineered the appointment of former General John Allen as a security adviser and coordinator to try to deal with some of those questions. The Palestinians always complain about being the weaker party in an asymmetrical negotiation. Kerry, therefore, brings in the Arab foreign ministers to revive the Arab peace initiative.

NORTHAM: Kurtzer says that helped make it easier for the Israelis and Palestinians to agree to head back to the negotiating table. But Kurtzer says there are many difficult issues to deal with in the days ahead, including the borders of a future Palestinian state and Israel's demand to be recognized as a Jewish state.

Gilead Sher, a top Israeli negotiator at the 2000 Camp David Summit, says he believes the talks will get under way, but he says it's unlikely there will be any major breakthrough in the near term.

GILEAD SHER: I would say that we need to settle for more modest objectives, such as partial agreements, transitional and interim agreements, coordinated independent actions by both sides. These all will be needed in order to pave the way forward.

NORTHAM: The State Department says discussions about final arrangements for the talks are still under way.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.

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