By Arshad Mohammed and Lesley Wroughton
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called on Monday for Israel and the Palestinians to make “reasonable compromises” for peace as he prepared to preside over their first direct negotiations in nearly three years.
“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.
“It is no secret, therefore, that 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 told reporters.
In a sign of the challenges, the parties differed in public about the agenda for the talks, with an Israeli official saying all issues would be discussed simultaneously and a Palestinian official saying they would start with borders and security.
The United States is seeking to broker an agreement on a “two-state solution” in which Israel would exist peacefully alongside a new Palestinian state created in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, lands occupied by the Israelis since a 1967 war.
The major issues that need to be resolved to bring an end to more than six decades of conflict include borders, the future of Jewish settlements on the West Bank, the fate of Palestinian refugees and the status of Jerusalem.
The resumption of peace talks is an achievement for Kerry, who made six trips to the region in the past four months to get the two sides to the table. The talks, slated to last nine months, were set to begin over dinner at the State Department on Monday and continue on Tuesday, U.S. officials said.
In a statement, U.S. President Barack Obama urged both sides to negotiate in good faith.
“The most difficult work of these negotiations is ahead, and I am hopeful that both the Israelis and Palestinians will approach these talks in good faith and with sustained focus and determination,” Obama said. “The United States stands ready to support them throughout these negotiations.”
The talks will be conducted by senior aides to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – Israel’s Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Yitzhak Molcho – and to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas – represented by Saeb Erekat and Mohammed Ishtyeh.
Even Indyk, who has previously served as the top U.S. diplomat for the Middle East and twice as U.S. ambassador to Israel, noted that when Kerry began his efforts this year almost no one thought he would succeed in reviving the negotiations.
“You took up the challenge when most people thought you were on a mission impossible,” Indyk said.
Indyk is a veteran of U.S. efforts to resolve the Israeli- Palestinian conflict. He was a senior official in President Bill Clinton’s administration, which oversaw a failed summit in 2000 after which violence erupted in Israel and the Palestinian territories.
The last direct negotiations collapsed in late 2010 over Israel’s construction of Jewish settlements on occupied land it seized in a 1967 Middle East war.
Previous attempts to resolve the conflict have sought to tackle easier disputes first and defer the most emotional ones like the fate of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees.
This time, “all of the issues that are at the core of a permanent accord will be negotiated simultaneously,” Silvan Shalom, a member of Netanyahu’s cabinet and rightist Likud party, told Israel’s Army Radio.
The Palestinians, with international backing, want their future state to have borders approximating the boundaries of the West Bank, adjacent East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip before Israel captured them in the 1967 Middle East war.
Yasser Abed Rabbo, a senior official in Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ umbrella Palestine Liberation Organization, said the U.S. letter of invitation to the talks had not specified which disputes were to be discussed.
But Abed Rabbo told Voice of Palestine radio the talks “will begin, in principle, on the issues of borders and security.”
Netanyahu resisted Abbas’ calls to accept the 1967 border formula before talks resumed. Shalom said that the Israeli position would help keep the talks comprehensive.
In what it dubbed a goodwill gesture required to restart diplomacy, the Israeli cabinet on Sunday approved the release of 104 long-serving Palestinian security prisoners in stages. Thousands more Palestinians remain in Israeli jails.
In picking Indyk, Kerry said he has chosen someone with deep experience in the region and the confidence of both sides.
Ghaith al-Omari, executive director of the Washington-based American Task Force on Palestine advocacy group, praised the selection. “Indyk is a good choice, both because he is serious and knowledgeable but also, I think, because of the personal dynamics he brings,” al-Omari said.
“The deep personal knowledge that he has of both Abu Mazen (Abbas) and Netanyahu will be very important at times of crisis,” al-Omari added. “So much depends on trust, and trust is easier to give when you have a known quantity in front of you.”
(Additional reporting by Dan Williams in Jerusalem and Ali Sawafta in Ramallah; Editing by Alistair Bell and Will Dunham)