By Jill Dougherty
As Secretary of State John Kerry embraced Israeli Justice Minister Tsipi Livini and warmly shook hands with chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat at the State Department on Tuesday there was a deja-vu moment.
A flashback to September 1993 when President Bill Clinton embraced Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO leader Yasser Arafat on the South Lawn of the White House.
This is just the beginning of a revived peace process that could easily crumble, as Clinton’s Oslo accords did and Kerry admitted: “I know the path is difficult. There is no shortage of passionate skeptics.”
The secretary of state, however, did succeed in getting two representatives together at the State Department to work out details of where this new push for peace is headed.
Substantive talks, Kerry announced, will take place within the next two weeks either in Israel or in the Palestinian territories, with “all of the final-status issues, all of the core issues, and all other issues … on the table for negotiation.”
The objective, he said, is to achieve a final-status agreement over the course of the next nine months.
President Barack Obama met with the two negotiators at the White House and a senior White House official told reporters the president is “impressed with the outlook and the atmosphere” and it appears the two sides are coming to the table with the “seriousness that will be necessary to tackle the challenges ahead.”
At the expected upcoming talks, the United States will be a “facilitator,” officials say. A senior State Department official called it an “indispensable role,” but the talks are direct negotiations between the two sides.
On hand will be Kerry’s new special envoy, Ambassador Martin Indyk, who is expected to spend a considerable amount of time in the region through early next year.
Both sides took risks to launch the talks, officials say with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu deciding to free 104 Palestinian prisoners which sparked an angry response among some Israeli.
Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, the officials say, “experienced political heat” for agreeing to negotiations. “We all know that leaders are going to have to do courageous and difficult things” to advance the process, said the White House official.
To aid the process, the Obama administration plans to leverage the private sector here and abroad to make “significant” investments in the Palestinian-controlled areas of the West bank and the Gaza strip to create sustainable growth.
‘This is not a U.S. assistance program,” the State Department official cautions. “This is not a bi-lateral aid program. We are not going to be seeking an appropriation or money to provide assistance to the Palestinians. This is not what it’s about.”
“If you give bilateral assistance once then the money gets spent and you’re right back at the beginning. If you create an environment where foreign investment comes flowing in, which is exactly what are trying to do here, then that should be sustainable over time.”
But John Kerry “already feels the clock is ticking,” the official says.
There will be provocations, officials predict, and Israeli settlement activity is likely to continue. But if the Obama administration had not been able to get negotiations going again, the White House official said, there could have been a “train wreck.”
“It’s going to take “very, very tough choices” by Israeli and Palestinian leaders to get where the administration hopes the process will go, the State Department official says, but “this is an opportunity that may not come around again.”