The prelude to peace talks is ending, and the main event may be days away.
At a Tuesday press conference, Secretary of State John Kerry said Israelis and Palestinians have agreed to launch formal peace talks in the next two weeks as a part of a nine-month effort to resolve the territorial conflict once and for all.
Kerry also announced that all final-status issues (borders, land swaps, right of return for Palestinian refugees, the future of Jerusalem, etc) are on the table without preconditions, and that the forthcoming meetings would take place in Israel or the Palestinian territories.
"While I understand the skepticism, I don’t share it, and I don’t think we have time for it," he said. "I firmly believe the negotiators … can make peace for one simple reason. Because they must."
The announcement follows meetings between an American team led by longtime Middle East hand Martin Indyk, Israelis, represented by Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and lawyer Yitzhak Molcho, and Palestinians, represented by Chief Negotiator Saeb Erekat and economist Mohammad Shtayyeh, on Monday night and Tuesday morning.
And if you’re looking for more details about the forthcoming talks in the newspapers, you’re wasting your time, Kerry said. "No one should consider reports reliable unless they come from me," he said, noting that he’ll be the only one authorized to comment on negotiations in the next nine months.
Livni and Erekat flanked Kerry during his announcement and both delivered optimistic remarks.
"I’m delighted that all final-status negotiations are on the table," said Erekat. "It’s time for the Palestinians to live in peace, freedom and dignity within their own sovereign state."
Livni added: "I believe that history is not made by cynics, it is made by realists who are not afraid to dream. Let us be these people."
Livni, of the liberal Hatnua party, who led negotiations during the last round of peace talks four years ago, has in the past favored a softer line than her boss, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Still, she pointedly praised him Tuesday for his decision to free a batch of Palestinian prisoners in the next several months, which she called a "courageous act of leadership by Prime Minister Netanyahu." The line provoked a quip by Robert Danin, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations: "Secretary Kerry appears to be on the verge of one major breakthrough: peace between Tzipi Livni and PM Netanyahu!" One of the byproducts of Livni and Netanyahu’s rocky relationship was the decision to send Molcho, a Netanyahu loyalist, to Washington alongside her.
Without a doubt, the path ahead is strewn with landmines as Israelis and Palestinians untangle a range of thorny issues including how to divide Jerusalem, where to carve up borders and what do with Palestinian refugees.
Today’s announcement caps a less than 48-hour visit to Washington by the negotiators that including a meeting with President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden on Tuesday morning and a Monday night iftar dinner at the White House.
"The time has come for lasting peace," said Kerry. "I’m convinced that we can get there."