Kerry Relaunches Mideast Peace Talks Amid Skepticism

As Israeli and Palestinian officials head to Washington for their first face-to-face peace talks in more than three years, Secretary of State Kerry named a new special envoy for the peace talks: Martin Indyk, a veteran negotiator and former ambassador to Israel.

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This evening, after a three-year hiatus, Secretary of State John Kerry is re-launching Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Kerry has tapped a longtime expert on the region, Martin Indyk of The Brookings Institution, to be the day-to-day point person on negotiations. Many are skeptical that this renewed effort will work. But as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports, Secretary Kerry has made it a top priority.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Martin Indyk has served as the U.S. ambassador to Israel and worked on the peace process during the Clinton administration. So Kerry says his new envoy for Israeli-Palestinian talks knows what works and what doesn't.

SECRETARY JOHN KERRY: He brings a deep appreciation for the art of U.S. diplomacy in the Middle East. That experience has earned Ambassador Indyk the respect of both sides, and they know that he has made the cause of peace his life mission.

KELEMEN: During an appearance in the State Department's briefing room, Kerry said Indyk knows peace won't come overnight. The new envoy joked about a screensaver his son put on his computer 15 years ago.

MARTIN INDYK: It consisted of a simple question that flashed across the screen constantly: Dad, is there peace in the Middle East yet? And for 15 years, I've only been able to answer him: Not yet.

KELEMEN: But Indyk says he's convinced peace is possible. Most experts are skeptical, including Robert Danin, a former State Department official who's now with the Council on Foreign Relations.

ROBERT DANIN: The fact that it took Secretary of State John Kerry six trips and enormous amount of political capital to get the parties to the talks suggests that, so far, he wants the talks more urgently than they do themselves. That's a real issue that's going to have to change for there to be real diplomatic progress in the future.

KELEMEN: Danin says neither side wanted to say no to Kerry, but that doesn't mean they're ready to resolve the thorny issues that divide them or even stay at the table.

DANIN: Recall the last round of talks that took place in 2010 lasted three weeks, and then they fell apart. So the first task is just going to be keeping them in the room together.

KELEMEN: Danin says this is one reason Israel decided that it will release 104 Palestinian prisoners but only in stages to make sure Palestinians don't walk away from negotiations. Israel also has an incentive to stay at the table because, sources say, Palestinians are promising that while talks are ongoing, they won't try to join more U.N. agencies or bring cases against Israel at the International Criminal Court. Secretary Kerry has been quiet in public about the arrangements for talks the State Department says will last at least nine months.

KERRY: Many difficult choices lie ahead for the negotiators and for the leaders as we seek reasonable compromises on tough, complicated, emotional and symbolic issues.

KELEMEN: President Obama calls it a promising step forward that Israeli and Palestinian leaders sent their negotiating teams here to re-launch talks. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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