WASHINGTON – In an early sign of promise, Israeli and Palestinian leaders pledged Thursday in a cordial first round of talks to keep meeting at regular intervals, aiming to nail down a framework for overcoming deep disputes and achieving lasting peace within a year.
As their facilitator-in-chief, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton urged Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to rise above the suspicion and skepticism that has blocked peace efforts for decades.
“By being here today, you each have taken an important step toward freeing your peoples from the shackles of a history we cannot change,” she said.
The eventual aim is the creation of a sovereign Palestinian state beside a secure Israel.
Thursday’s results, in the first face-to-face peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians in nearly two years, were modest – and acknowledged as such by all sides. There was no detailed negotiation on any substantive issue, according to George Mitchell, the administration’s special envoy for Mideast peace, who held months of preparatory talks and was a participant in most of the day’s discussions.
Netanyahu and Abbas will meet again on Sept. 14 and 15 in the Middle East, probably at the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheik, with Clinton and Mitchell attending. The two also agreed to meet roughly every two weeks after that – sometimes with U.S. officials present, other times not.
Mitchell offered no timeline for agreeing on the initial framework, which he said was to be “less than a full-fledged treaty” but more detailed than a statement of principles.
A major obstacle is looming: Israel’s moratorium on Jewish settlement construction in the disputed West Bank is due to expire Sept. 26. The Palestinians have said that unless the freeze is extended, the fledgling peace talks will collapse in short order.
In his public remarks Thursday, Netanyahu made no reference to an extension; Abbas called for an end to settlement expansion, but he raised the matter in the context of both sides living up to commitments, including a Palestinian pledge to end all incitement of violence against Israelis.
That’s not entirely under Abbas’ control.
Gunmen from the militant Palestinian Hamas movement killed four Israeli residents of a West Bank settlement on Tuesday. And, on Wednesday, hours before the leaders had dinner with President Barack Obama and Clinton at the White House, Hamas gunmen wounded two Israelis as they drove in another part of the West Bank.
Hamas rejected the talks and stepped up its rhetoric as the ceremony in Washington began.
“These talks are not legitimate because the Palestinian people did not give any mandate to Mahmoud Abbas and his team to negotiate on behalf of our people,” said Sami Abu Zuhri, a spokesman. “Therefore, any result and outcome of these talks does not commit us and does not commit our people, it only commits Abbas himself.”
In Washington, the atmosphere was mostly upbeat.
In his opening remarks, Netanyahu at one point turned to Abbas and said, “I see in you a partner for peace. Together, we can lead our people to a historic future that can put an end to claims and to conflict.”
Abbas struck an optimistic tone, too. “We’re not starting from scratch,” he said, noting that all the central issues in dispute are well known.
Both cautioned, however, that hard decisions lay ahead.
When the two leaders had finished their introductory remarks, they shook hands, a smiling Clinton seated between them.
In a plea for both sides to compromise, Clinton said the Obama administration has no illusions about a quick breakthrough.
“We’ve been here before, and we know how difficult the road ahead will be,” she said. “There undoubtedly will be obstacles and setbacks. Those who oppose the cause of peace will try in every way possible to sabotage this process, as we have already seen this week.”