Kerry Hopes To Defy Skeptics Of Mideast Peace Talks

Israeli and Palestinian officials will begin formal peace talks in two weeks, with all issues on the table. Secretary of State John Kerry announced the negotiating plan after preparatory talks with Israeli and Palestinian envoys in Washington.

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Nine months: That's the amount of time Secretary of State John Kerry believes it will take for Israeli and Palestinian negotiators to work out their differences. Kerry has invested much time and energy into reviving peace talks, which broke down three years ago. He re-launched the process at the State Department yesterday.

And as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports, Kerry says he hopes to defy the skeptics.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: After half-a-dozen trips to the Middle East and countless hours on the phone, Secretary Kerry hosted Israeli and Palestinian negotiators at the State Department, raising hopes that this peace process might actually accomplish something.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

SECRETARY JOHN KERRY: As all of you know, it has taken an awful lot of work and a long time, a lot of time, to reach this new moment of possibility in the pursuit of an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

KELEMEN: Kerry says these will be sustained, continuous and substantive negotiations, though he says he knows there are - as he puts it - many passionate skeptics. He's not one of them.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

KERRY: So while I understand the skepticism, I don't share it, and I don't think we have time for it. I firmly believe the leaders, the negotiators and citizens invested in this effort can make peace for one simple reason: because they must.

KELEMEN: There is no other way to resolve the conflict, Kerry says, other than creating a Palestinian state that would exist side by side in peace and security with Israel. And he says all the key issues will be on the table. Those include borders, security, the fate of Palestinian refugees and Jerusalem, part of which Palestinians want as their future capital.

The lead Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, made clear he's not looking for interim deals or half measures.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

SAEB EREKAT: I'm delighted that all final-status issues are on the table, and will be resolved without any exceptions. And it's time for the Palestinian people to have an independent, sovereign state of their own.

KELEMEN: Erekat is no stranger to the peace process. He's been a Palestinian negotiator for decades. The lead Israeli negotiator is Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who was involved in the peace process when the Bush administration tried its hand at this. Livni says she knows this won't be easy, but is raising a glimmer of hope that she and Erekat can reach the deal they've tried to negotiate in the past.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

TZIPI LIVNI: I believe that history is not made by cynics. It is made by realists who are not afraid to dream. Let us be these people.

KELEMEN: Secretary Kerry says he's convinced the two sides can get there in nine months, and he's urging them to make reasonable compromises.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

KERRY: Reasonable, principled compromise in the name of peace means that everybody stands to gain.

KELEMEN: Israel agreed to release more than 100 Palestinian prisoners to jumpstart talks, and Palestinians are reportedly suspending their effort to upgrade their status at U.N. agencies.

U.S. officials say that was one motivating factor to this peace process, to avoid what they say could be a diplomatic train wreck at the United Nations.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department.

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