WASHINGTON - Pressing ahead in a new U.S.-backed push for Middle East peace, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators agreed Tuesday to meet again within two weeks to start substantive talks in hopes of reaching a long-elusive settlement within nine months.
Speaking after the two sides wrapped up an initial two days of talks at the State Department and visited President Barack Obama at the White House, Secretary of State John Kerry said Israel and the Palestinians were committed to sustained and serious negotiations on the "core issues" that divide them. The next round will take place in either Israel or the Palestinian territories before mid-August, he said.
Kerry said he was aware of the deep doubts surrounding the new peace effort and acknowledged that the road would be difficult. Yet, he said, "While I understand the skepticism, I don't share it. And I don't think we have time for it."
Secretary of State John Kerry stands with Israel's Justice Minister and chief negotiator Tzipi Livni, right, and Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat, after the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, Tuesday, at the State Department in Washington.
All issues, including contentious disputes over the status of the territories and Jerusalem, are "on the table for negotiation, and they are on the table with one simple goal: a view to ending the conflict," Kerry said.
The U.S. had already said the negotiations would continue for at least nine months - roughly until the end of April 2014 - but that had not been set as a timeframe for reaching a deal. Kerry and both sides agreed that neither would walk away from the talks or take actions that could disrupt them for that period, two senior U.S. officials said. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to discuss diplomatic talks.
However, the officials also said they expect that the Israelis, over U.S. objections, will continue constructing housing for Jewish settlers on land claimed by the Palestinians over the course of the negotiations, an indication the Palestinians are serious about dropping their longstanding demand for a settlement freeze before returning to talks. The officials said the U.S. believes the Palestinians also will not attempt to win further international recognition as a state until a peace deal is completed, an effort that one official likened to a potential "train wreck."
Kerry said that Israel, which agreed on Sunday to release more than 100 Palestinian prisoners as a goodwill gesture, would also take unspecified steps in the coming days to ease harsh living conditions in the West Bank and Gaza. The two senior officials said those measures complement a $4 billion private sector economic program that Kerry is trying put in place to assist the Palestinians.