Israel, Palestinians To Resume Peace Talks

For the first time in nearly two years, the leaders of Israel and the Palestinians have agreed to talk face-to-face about peace. Both sides describe the negotiations that led to the announcement as "torturous."

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

For the first time in nearly two years, the leaders of Israel and the Palestinians have agreed to talk face to face about peace. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made that announcement earlier today.

Secretary HILLARY CLINTON (State Department): I've invited Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Abbas, to meet on September 2nd in Washington, D.C., to relaunch direct negotiations to resolve all final status issues, which we believe can be completed within one year.

SIEGEL: Secretary Clinton shared the staged with the U.S. Special Envoy for Mideast Peace, George Mitchell. He was asked about that one-year timeline and why the administration is confident a settlement can be reached in that time after the 20 months it's taken the two sides to simply get back to the table. And Mitchell responded with a story about the first time he got his house painted.

Mr. GEORGE MITCHELL (U.S. Special Envoy for Middle East Peace): It took the painters seemingly forever to prime the building and the walls. I kept asking myself, when are they going to start painting? Paying by the hour and you want some progress.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MITCHELL: And after this seemingly endless priming, why, they painted it very quickly.

SIEGEL: Well, in the Middle East today, NPR's Lourdes Garcia Navarro did not hear a lot of hope that peace will come quickly.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed the invitation to resume direct talks, a statement released by his office reads in part, reaching an agreement is a difficult challenge, but is possible. We are coming to the talks with a genuine desire to reach a peace agreement between the two peoples that will protect Israel's national security interests.

In an interview with NPR, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat also said that the guidelines laid out for the direct talks were acceptable.

Mr. SAEB EREKAT (Chief Negotiator, Palestine): And I believe the elements contained in the statements can provide for a peace agreement within one year. It's doable. It's time for decisions.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The Obama administration has invested a lot of capital in these talks succeeding. Both sides describe the negotiations that led to the announcement as torturous. But while Washington would like to tout this as a breakthrough, there is skepticism that these talks will result in a peace deal.

Already there are disagreements over the framework of the negotiations. Palestinians want the talks to end within a year. Israel's deputy foreign minister Danny Ayalon says that is a recipe for disaster.

Mr. DANNY AYALON (Deputy Foreign Minister, Israel): We have had so many deadlines that were not met in the last 17 years. And what happens when you have a deadline, each party tends to, I would say, postpone the important, difficult decisions towards the deadline. And then it becomes a crisis and then the deadline is no longer there. And then you build expectations that are then crushed.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And Palestinians want Israel to renew a moratorium on Jewish building in the occupied West Bank. The so-called settlement freeze is due to expire in mid-September. Saeb Erekat says Netanyahu must act in good faith.

Mr. EREKAT: The Israelis have the choice now: settlement or peace. And I really hope that they choose peace.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Israel says any extension will have to be negotiated. Danny Ayalon also says there should be no preconditions to the talks.

Mr. AYALON: They have to understand that just as Israel is expected to give up land, to give up sovereignty, they will have to do the same and they cannot come with a maximalistic demands.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Sabri Saidam is the deputy secretary general of the Fatah Revolutionary Council. He says Palestinians are worried that Israel will use the peace talks as a cover for settlement expansion. There have been 17 years of negotiations, he says, which have yielded little. He says many members of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah party are against the negotiations because the Palestinian public doesn't believe in them anymore.

Mr. SABRI SAIDAM (Deputy Secretary General, Fatah Revolutionary Council): There's no leadership that can continue to be in office without rallying the people behind it. And the people so far don't see any success stories that can encourage them to accept going to direct talks. If we don't go to peace talks, then there's negative consequences. If we go to peace talks, then we lose the people.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: There is little appetite for negotiation in Israel as well, says political analyst Mark Heller from Tel Aviv University.

Dr. MARK HELLER (Political Analyst, Tel Aviv University): Israel is doing all right. It's managed to deal, for the most part, with much of the security issue. At least as far as the Palestinians are concerned. And so there's no very strong push to run the risks and to bear the costs of pushing foreign agreement when the status quo is not so intolerable.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Jerusalem.

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