Israeli and Palestinian negotiators held their first peace talks in nearly three years on Monday in a U.S.-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 U.S. 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.