- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Secretary of State John F. Kerry set an ambitious schedule Tuesday for new peace talks between Israel and Palestine, saying the goal is to achieve a “final-status agreement” between the two sides by the end of April.

Summing up two days of direct talks he oversaw in Washington, Mr. Kerry said “all of the core issues” in dispute in the decades-old conflict will be on the table going forward, with delegations from both sides having agreed to hold their next meeting within two weeks in the Middle East.

Mr. Kerry steered clear of pinpointing specific targets to be met during the course of coming nine months, and stopped short of identifying a definitive benchmark from which the coming negotiations will begin.

President Obama has vowed his full support for a two-state solution to the conflict, but skeptics warn the road ahead is fraught with the same obstacles that frustrated the numerous past efforts to strike a deal.

“How can you have two-state solution if you don’t have some sort of basic benchmark for where the borders would be drawn, where you start negotiations from to get an understanding of where the two states are supposed to be situated?” asked Joshua Landis, who heads the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.

Mr. Landis noted that, apart from Mr. Kerry, those involved in the current round of negotiations are “all the same actors who cut their teeth on this in the past but failed and are now back at it again.”

Mr. Kerry told reporters at the State Department on Tuesday morning that negotiators from both sides had agreed during the initial two days of meetings in Washington that “all of the final-status issues, all of the core issues, and all other issues are all on the table for negotiation.”

“And they are on the table with one simple goal,” the secretary of state said. “A view to ending the conflict, ending the claims.”

The heart of the talks will be the so-called core issues such as the final borders of a Palestinian state, security guarantees for Israel, the status of Jerusalem and future of Jewish settlements on land claimed by Palestine.

But some foreign policy insiders Tuesday pointed to another issue likely to rear its head during the coming months: the status of Gaza. Political control over the enclave, which borders Egypt, is presently in the hands of Hamas, the militant Islamist group that the U.S. government classifies as a terrorist organization.

“I think that Gaza is one of the huge elephants in the room that no one’s talking about and yet can be one of the biggest obstacles to there being progress,” said Robert M. Danin, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Mr. Danin, who held a conference call with reporters Tuesday afternoon, noted that “Gaza exists out of the control” of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, whose representatives constitute the entire Palestinian delegation participating in the peace talks.

With Hamas leaders expected to repudiate any agreement reached between the delegation and Israel, Mr. Danin added, Gaza “contains the seeds for undermining a deal.”

Still, the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has shown an unexpected level of willingness to restart the talks during the past week. Ahead of the arrival Monday of peace delegations in Washington, Mr. Netanyahu’s Cabinet made a move considered unpopular among many in Israel by releasing 104 Palestinian prisoners.

Some Middle East analysts have remained guardedly optimistic toward the peace talks and defended Mr. Kerry’s move to set a tight deadline for a deal.

“The nine-month thing should be viewed in the context of what happened in 2010, when the two sides met for three weeks and then the Palestinians didn’t want to meet anymore,” said David Makovsky, who heads the Project on the Middle East Peace Process at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Mr. Makovsky also said he was unsurprised by Mr. Kerry’s avoidance of any specific targets or benchmarks in the upcoming talks.

“In terms of the scope of the issues, it’s the parties that are insisting everything’s going to be discussed. Whether this is realistic is a different question,” he said. “If it was up to the U.S., we’d be happy even if they just resolve issues of borders and security.”

• Guy Taylor can be reached at gtaylor@washingtontimes.com.

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