US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton formally opened the first direct peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians in nearly two years today with a plea for both sides to make compromises to forge an agreement.
At a ceremony in the State Department’s ornate Benjamin Franklin room, Clinton said the Obama administration was committed to securing a settlement in a year’s time.
But, she stressed that the heavy lifting must be done by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
“We will be an active and sustained partner,” she said in Washington. “But we cannot and we will not impose a solution. Only you can make the decisions necessary to reach an agreement and secure a peaceful future for the Israeli and Palestinian people.”
Netanyahu and Abbas pledged their seriousness to securing an agreement and overcoming decades of mutual hostility and suspicion.
“This will not be easy,” Netanyahu said. “True peace, a lasting peace, will be achieved only with mutual and painful concessions from both sides.”
“We do know how hard are the hurdles and obstacles we face during these negotiations – negotiations that within a year should result in an agreement that will bring peace,” Abbas said.
Abbas called on Israel to end Jewish settlements in the West Bank and other areas that the Palestinians want to be part off their own state. Netanyahu insisted that any agreement must assure Israel’s security.
Today’s negotiations are the first since the last effort broke down in December 2008 and are fraught with complications, including recent violence in the West Bank and Israeli settlement activity.
Expectations are low and US officials have said success may be only an agreement to hold a second round of negotiations.
Officials say they are hoping to arrange that meeting for September 15 in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheik and top aides to the leaders are expected to meet later today to iron out final details of the next step.
Sitting at the top of a U-shaped table between Netanyahu and Abbas, Clinton congratulated the two for agreeing to resume negotiations but warned of difficult days to come in the effort to create an independent Palestinian state.
“I know the decision to sit at this table was not easy,” Clinton added. “We understand the suspicion and scepticism that so many feel borne out of years of conflict and frustrated hopes.”
She noted two recent attacks on Israelis in the West Bank claimed by the militant Hamas movement underscored the difficulties facing the two leaders.
“But, by being here today, you each have taken an important set toward freeing your peoples from the shackles of a history we cannot change and moving toward a future of peace and dignity that only you can create.”
Hamas gunmen killed four Israeli residents of a West Bank settlement on Tuesday as Netanyahu, Abbas and the leaders of Egypt and Jordan convened in Washington. And on Wednesday, hours before the leaders ate dinner at the White House, Hamas gunmen wounded two Israelis as they drove in their car in another part of the West Bank.
The talks will face their first test within weeks, at the end of September, when the Israeli government’s declared slowdown in settlement construction is slated to end.
Palestinians have said that a renewal of settlement construction will torpedo the talks.
The Israeli government is divided over the future of the slowdown, and a decision to extend it could split Netanyahu’s hawkish coalition. Netanyahu has given no indication so far that it will continue beyond the deadline.