- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 2, 2010

Palestinian and Israeli leaders agreed Thursday to pursue an interim understanding, or framework agreement, before ironing out a peace treaty during the first direct talks between the two sides since 2008.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met for 1 1/2 hours behind closed doors with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at the State Department, along with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Mideast envoy George Mitchell, who described the talks as cordial.

Mr. Mitchell, President Obama’s special envoy for Middle East Peace, told reporters at the department that the framework agreement would be aimed at identifying the areas where compromise is needed.

“The purpose of a framework agreement will be to establish the fundamental compromises necessary to enable them to flesh out and complete a comprehensive treaty that will end the conflict and establish a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians,” said Mr. Mitchell, a former Democratic Senate majority leader.

For now, the most tangible result of the meeting is the agreement for the two leaders to meet again on Sept. 13 and 14 in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el Sheikh. Both leaders also agreed to meet every two weeks or so and to try to finish the negotiations within a year.

The thorniest issues between the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority include the status of East Jerusalem, a city both sides consider their capital, and the ground of holy sites for all three major Abrahamic faiths.

Also on the list will be a compromise on Palestinian refugees. Palestinians have long asserted a “right to return” for the people and relatives who fled Israeli territory in the 1948 war that established the Jewish state. In 2000, Israel’s then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered to compensate financially the families of Palestinians who fled in exchange for ending their claims to territory inside pre-1967 Israel.

“The parties agreed that in their actions and statements they will work to create an atmosphere of trust that will be conducive to reaching a final agreement,” Mr. Mitchell said.

This new approach was evident Wednesday evening, when Mr. Abbas referred to the Hamas gunmen who killed four Israelis in the West Bank earlier this week as “murderers.”

Mr. Netanyahu said in remarks at the White House on Wednesday night that Mr. Abbas was his “peace partner.”

Nonetheless, the two sides have yet to agree on a moratorium on Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank. A current freeze on building there will expire on Sept. 26, and Mr. Netanyahu has said he will not extend the freeze. Mr. Abbas has said he will leave the talks if the freeze is not renewed.

“The atmospherics were positive and both leaders made an effort to say things designed to appeal to the other side,” said Alan Elsner, director of communications for the Israel Project, an international nonprofit group that provides information about Israel.

“This was as good a start as could have been expected. Substantively, all the hard work remains ahead, it is unclear what will happen when the moratorium expires,” Mr. Elsner said.

The framework agreement approach was tried at the very end of the Clinton administration in 2000 after the breakdown of the Camp David peace talks. The result was a guideline for the conflict that came to be known as the “Clinton parameters,” which allowed for swaps of land between the Palestinians and Israelis for the major settlement blocs in and around Jerusalem to remain part of Israel’s final borders.

The Camp David talks ended in failure, and soon thereafter, a new war, or intifadah, broke out between the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli government. Many of the preventive security services established during the peace process were military targets for Israel. Meanwhile, documents seized by Israeli forces in 2002 found that those same security services were aiding terrorists attacking Israeli civilians.

When asked about how this process was different from others in the past, Mr. Mitchell said: “Our view is this is an effort that will try to learn from the lessons of the past, take the best and bring them forward, but not be bound by any label or category or previous process.”

He added also that President Obama is the first president to take up the issue at the beginning of his presidency and not the end.

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