U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Tuesday that Israeli and Palestinian negotiators have agreed to convene again in the Middle East within the next two weeks to begin substantive negotiations toward a comprehensive peace agreement and that he is aiming to help seal a final deal within nine months.
Kerry, speaking alongside Tzipi Livni, Israel’s justice minister, and Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said this week's discussions were "positive and constructive" and he was convinced the two sides could make peace.
After a morning of talks at the White House with U.S. President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, Kerry said the two sides had agreed that all of the most contentious issues, such as borders, refugees and the fate of Jerusalem, would be on the table for discussion.
"The parties have agreed here today that all of the final status issues, all of the core issues, and all other issues, are on the table for negotiation. They are on the table with one simple goal: a view to ending the conflict, ending the claims," Kerry said.
The top American diplomat stressed that both Israelis and Palestinians have "legitimate security concerns," pointing out the United States has worked closely with Palestinian authorities to develop their security force capacity, with "dramatic" results.
"All sides recognize this, Kerry said, "the Arab League, too."
Livni thanked Obama and Kerry for "proving today that failure is not an option."
The Israeli minister said she had traveled to Washington "from a troubled and changing region" and that her government "owed it to the Israeli people" to do everything it can for their security.
"We all know it's going to be hard, with ups and downs. But I can assure you that in these negotiations it is not our intention to argue about the past, but to create solutions and make decisions for the future," Livni said.
The two days of negotiations in Washington were the first direct peace talks in nearly three years.
Kerry hosted the two sides for dinner Monday night, after urging them to make "reasonable compromises" in the negotiations. He said the issues at stake are tough, complicated, emotional and symbolic, but that the consequences of not attempting to negotiate would be worse.
For his part, Erekat asserted that no one benefits more from successful talks than the Palestinians.
"I am delighted that all final status issues are on the table and will be resolved without any exceptions. It's time for the Palestinian people to have an independent, sovereign state of their own," he said.
Former U.S. ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk will be the main American envoy helping guide the talks. Indyk said Monday he will do his best to achieve Obama's vision of two states living side by side in peace and security.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said earlier that the nine-month time frame for direct negotiations is not a deadline and that the talks will not automatically stop after that period.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed to free 104 Palestinian prisoners as a condition to restart the talks. Israeli media say the prisoners include Palestinians convicted of deadly attacks against Israeli civilians and security forces.
Ultranationalist Israeli Cabinet ministers have said freeing the prisoners would be a reward for terrorism. But Netanyahu told his ministers the decision was difficult for him and the families of those killed, but necessary to renew the peace process.