WASHINGTON - Direct talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority reopened yesterday following a hiatus of more than 18 months.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas agreed that the purpose of the talks was to reach a "framework agreement" leading to resolution of the conflict. The next round of talks will take place in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt in mid-September.
Following an opening ceremony, the three delegations met. Next came a meeting between Netanyahu, Abbas, Clinton and special Mideast envoy George Mitchell in Clinton's office. Netanyahu and Abbas broke to meet with their aides for a few minutes, after which Clinton and Mitchell left Netanyahu and Abbas alone for a private meeting.
The main conclusion of the talks was that the next round would take place over two days in Sharm el-Sheikh beginning on September 14. Clinton and Mitchell will also attend the second round.
Netanyahu and Abbas will continue to meet every two weeks. The Israeli and Palestinian teams had already begun preparing for the September summit yesterday.
Mitchell said the parties had agreed to begin work on a "framework agreement for permanent status" whose purpose was to "establish the fundamental compromises necessary to enable them to flesh out and complete a comprehensive treaty that will end the conflict and establish a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians."
Speaking at a press conference yesterday, Mitchell said Abbas and Netanyahu had agreed that "these negotiations can be completed within one year and that the aim of the negotiations is to resolve all core issues."
Mitchell said the meeting between Netanyahu, Clinton and Abbas had involved "a long and productive discussion on a range of issues. President Abbas and Prime Minister Netanyahu expressed their intent to approach these negotiations in good faith and with a seriousness of purpose. They also agreed that for these negotiations to succeed, they must be kept private and treated with the utmost sensitivity."
Mitchell described the relationship between Netanyahu and Abbas as "cordial."
"As you know, these men have known each other for a long time," he said. "This is not the first meeting between them. They are not in any way strangers, politically or personally. And I felt that it was a very constructive and positive mood, both in terms of their personal interaction and in terms of the nature of the discussion that occurred."
Mitchell also said Netanyahu and Abbas had condemned all forms of violence that target innocent civilians "and pledged to work together to maintain security. They reiterated their common goal of two states for two peoples and a solution to the conflict that resolves all issues, ends all claims and establishes a viable state of Palestine alongside a secure state of Israel."
But for all the optimism, even the opening ceremony, which was open to the media, revealed some of the deep divides between the parties. Netanyahu mentioned in his remarks that he expected the Palestinians to recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. Abbas, who spoke next, rejected the idea and said the PLO had recognized Israel in 1993.
Clinton's remarks during the opening ceremony were directed mainly at public opinion in Israel and the Palestinian Authority. She said the parties needed public support, because "peace needs champions on every street corner."
In a reference to this week's shooting attacks in the West Bank, Mitchell told the press: "As we saw this week, there are those who will use violence to try to derail these talks. There are going to be difficult days and many obstacles along the way. We recognize that this is not an easy task. But as the president told the leaders, we expect to continue until our job is complete and successful."
Mitchell noted that U.S. President Barack Obama and Clinton had pledged the United States' full support to the parties in the talks.
"We will be an active and sustained partner throughout," he said. "We will put our full weight behind these negotiations, and will stand by the parties as they make the difficult decisions necessary to secure a better future for their citizens."
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