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Tue 30 Jul 2013 10:37 AM

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Israeli-Palestinian talks begin amid deep divisions

US has encouraged both sides to strike "reasonable compromises"

Israeli-Palestinian talks begin amid deep divisions
US Secretary of State John Kerry speaks to US Embassy staff while in Kuwait City on June 26, 2013. After Kuwait, Kerry flies later in the day to Jordan on his latest push to resume direct peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, hoping to overcome doubts on whether he can succeed. It is Kerrys fifth visit to the region since the veteran senator became the top US diplomat in February. He has vowed to keep pressing to solve one the worlds most intractable disputes, while warning that the clock is ticking. (AFP/Getty Images)

Israeli and
Palestinian negotiators held their first peace talks in nearly three years on
Monday in a US-brokered effort that Secretary of State John Kerry hopes will end
their conflict despite deep divisions.

Top aides to Israeli
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas began
the talks over an iftar dinner - the evening meal with which Muslims break their
daily fast during Ramadan - hosted by Kerry at the State
Department.

Kerry, who has
prodded, coaxed and cajoled the two sides to resume negotiations in a flurry of
visits to the Middle East during his less than six months in office, urged
Israelis and Palestinians to strike "reasonable
compromises."

It was clear,
however, from some public statements over the agenda for the talks - which are
expected to run for nine months - and comments by Abbas, that there are major
disagreements over issues such as borders and security.

"It is no secret this
is a difficult process. If it were easy, it would have happened a long time
ago," Kerry said with his newly named envoy for Israeli-Palestinian peace,
former US Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk, at his side.

"Many difficult
choices lie ahead for the negotiators and for the leaders as we seek reasonable
compromises on tough, complicated, emotional, and symbolic issues," Kerry
added.

The talks started
over dinner with Israel represented by Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Yitzhak
Molcho, a close aide to Netanyahu, and the Palestinians by chief negotiator Saeb
Erekat and Mohammed Ishtyeh.

As the sides came
together in Washington on Monday Kerry met separately with each, starting with
the Israelis, before all came together around the dinner table. Kerry and his
delegation of four, including new envoy Indyk, were seated on one side of the
table and their guests on the other side, with the two main negotiators Livni
and Erekat seated side by side.

"It's very, very
special to be here," Kerry told his guests. "There isn't very much to talk about
at all," he joked.

The parties have
publicly sparred over how the negotiations will unfold, with an Israeli official
saying all issues would be discussed simultaneously and a Palestinian official
saying they would start with borders and security.

Speaking in Cairo on
Monday, Abbas struck a hard line, saying that ultimately he did not want a
single Israeli citizen or soldier on Palestinian land. His comments were made
despite Kerry's wish that both sides refrain from talking publicly about
issues.

Israel has previously
said it wants to maintain a military presence in the occupied West Bank at the
border with Jordan to prevent any influx of weapons that could be used against
it.

"In a final
resolution, we would not see the presence of a single Israeli - civilian or
soldier - on our lands," Abbas said in a briefing to mostly Egyptian journalists
in Cairo.

In an interview with
Reuters Television in Washington, Livni voiced some hope about the talks. "It is
not a favour to the United States or to the Palestinians, this is something that
we need to do," she said.

Middle East analysts
praised Kerry for persuading the two sides to resume talks but emphasised the
difficulties ahead.

"Right now, there's
almost no chance of achieving a conflict-ending agreement; yet by pressing the
Israelis and Palestinians back toward the table, the United States has assumed
responsibility for producing one," Aaron David Miller, a former US peace
negotiator, wrote in a New York Times opinion piece.

"Nobody appears to
have a stake in the talks except the United States, and Mr. Kerry," added
Miller, who is now at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars think
tank.

The United States is
seeking to broker an agreement on a "two-state solution" in which Israel would
exist peacefully alongside a new Palestinian state created in the West Bank and
the Gaza Strip, lands occupied by the Israelis since a 1967
war.

The major issues to
be resolved in the talks include borders, the future of Jewish settlements on
the West Bank, the fate of Palestinian refugees and the status of
Jerusalem.

Even Indyk, Kerry's
new envoy, who has previously served as the top U.S. diplomat for the Middle
East, noted that when Kerry began his efforts this year almost no one thought he
would succeed in reviving the negotiations.

"You took up the
challenge when most people thought you were on a mission impossible," Indyk
said.

Abbas and Netanyahu
may have enormous difficulty convincing their own people to accept the
compromises needed for peace, Middle East expert Rob Danin of the Council on
Foreign Relations think tank wrote on Monday.

Resuming talks is
unpopular among some of Abbas's supporters in his Fatah movement, which governs
the West Bank, let alone with the Islamist Hamas group that rules the Gaza Strip
and has condemned the effort.

Netanyahu's domestic
politics are also difficult, with some of his coalition partners against the
creation of a Palestinian state, Danin said, adding he may have to leave the
Likud Party, as some of his predecessors did, in order to make
concessions.

"Both sides will be
negotiating, not only with each other across a table, but also with their own
people back home."

Indyk is a veteran of
US efforts to resolve the conflict. He was a senior official during former
President Bill Clinton's failed Camp David summit in 2000 after which violence
erupted in Israel and the Palestinian territories.

The last direct
negotiations collapsed in late 2010 over Israel's construction of Jewish
settlements on occupied land it seized in the 1967 Middle East
war.

Previous attempts to
resolve the conflict have sought to tackle easier disputes first and defer the
most emotional ones like the fate of Jerusalem and of Palestinian
refugees.

The Palestinians,
with international backing, want their future state to have borders
approximating the boundaries of the West Bank, adjacent East Jerusalem and the
Gaza Strip before Israel captured them in the 1967 war.

In what it called a
goodwill gesture to restart diplomacy, the Israeli Cabinet on Sunday approved
the release of 104 long-serving Palestinian prisoners in stages. Thousands more
Palestinians remain in Israeli jails.

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