Israel’s president urged Israeli and Palestinian leaders to overcome differences and resume peace negotiations, saying the sides could not afford “to lose this opportunity”.
Shimon Peres issued his call ahead of a gathering of Middle East leaders on the sidelines of a conference hosted by the Geneva-based World Economic Forum on the shores of the Dead Sea in Jordan.
The conference included a rare face-to-face meeting between Israeli and Palestinian leaders, with the participation of US secretary of state John Kerry, who has devoted much of the past two months to restarting long-stalled peace talks.
“We shouldn’t lose the opportunity because it will be replaced by a great disappointment,” Mr Peres told reporters in Jordan. “For my experience, I believe it’s possible to overcome it. It doesn’t require too much time.”
Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas agreed. “Enough is enough. A lot of our young people have started to lose confidence in the two-state solution,” he said to a loud applause from an audience of more than 1,000 business and government leaders from 23 countries worldwide.
He blamed the growing mistrust on Israeli moves, essentially construction in West Bank settlements and detention of hundreds of Palestinians.
Mr Abbas reiterated his rejection of partial solutions. “We will neither accept interim solutions, nor a state with temporary borders or a peace based on economic perks without progress on the political track,” he said.
At one point in the closing session, Mr Kerry joked with Mr Abbas and Mr Peres - who exchanged hugs, kisses, handshakes and emotional speeches – telling both from the podium that he had an “agreement you can come up and sign”.
Mr Abbas peeked at Mr Peres, pointing to the podium. Then both laughed.
Palestinian-Israeli peace talks broke down nearly five years ago, in large part due to disagreements over Israeli settlement building on occupied territories claimed by the Palestinians.
The Palestinians say there is no point in negotiating while Israel continues to build Jewish settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, which they say undermines their quest to set up an independent state. The Palestinians want both areas, captured by Israel in 1967, as parts of their state.
On his fourth visit to the Middle East since taking office in February, Mr Kerry held talks with Mr Abbas and Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week. He said during his latest regional swing that both sides must make hard decisions to move towards direct negotiations.
Mr Peres, who won the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize for helping forge an interim deal with the Palestinians, sounded upbeat and determined to help in peacemaking with Palestinians.
“It is time for peace,” he said. “I believe this is an important opportunity to (engage), not to waste time, return to negotiations and complete the negotiations with the Palestinians.”
He said a peace agreement must be “based on a two-state solution: an Israeli state, a Palestinian state living as good neighbours co-operating economically and bringing a message to the young generation.”
Mr Peres, for decades an ardent supporter of peace with the Palestinians, holds a ceremonial role in Israel and his views are highly respected in Israeli society.
But Mr Netanyahu, who has most decision-making powers, holds more hawkish positions and has given few signs of how he sees a final peace deal with the Palestinians.
While Mr Netanyahu has endorsed the concept of a two-state solution, the Palestinians accuse him of undermining that goal through his actions. In particular, they object to continued settlement construction and Mr Netanyahu’s refusal to endorse Israel’s pre-1967 lines as the basis for a future border.
Mr Netanyahu has called for resumption of peace talks without pre-conditions, saying all those issues would be on the table.
Israeli media reported that Mr Peres discussed with Mr Netanyahu some key issues he was expected to raise at the forum.
Earlier, a group of Israeli and Palestinian businessmen at the conference unveiled a plan to push their leaders to begin serious peace negotiations.
“We’re using our collective business experience and influence to convince leaders on both sides that peace is a must,” said business tycoon Munib Masri.
Mr Masri said he was leading the initiative, called “breaking the impasse”, along with Israeli high-tech guru Yossi Vardi. He said they would lobby both sides to make peace.