JERUSALEM – Shrouded in so much secrecy that even the meeting time and place were not officially disclosed, Israelis and Palestinians began a second round of direct negotiations on Wednesday.
Officials on both sides declined to comment, in keeping with strict rules set down by U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry, who orchestrated the talks and is hoping to keep the process low-profile to avoid spoilers and leaks.
At Wednesday’s meeting, negotiators were expected to map out an agenda for the coming nine months. Israel is being represented by Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Yitzhak Molcho, an adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. On the Palestinian side are chief negotiator Saeb Erekat and Mohammed Shtayyeh, an adviser to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
The meeting, which some Israeli media speculated was being held at the King David hotel, was mediated by newly appointed U.S. envoy Martin Indyk, a former ambassador to Israel.
Keeping the process behind closed doors is vital, said former Israeli negotiator Gilead Sher.
“The complex and volatile nature of the issues at hand make secrecy necessary,’’ he said.
With an assurance of confidentiality, both sides will be more willing to explore new, perhaps controversial ideas that could set off alarm bells among their constituencies if prematurely disclosed, he said.
But eventually, both sides will need to disclose details and begin trying to build public support for whatever agreement might be reached.
“If leaders don’t tell the public what the talks are really about, they shouldn’t be surprised if at the end of the day, instead of having a supportive public, they have a surprised and therefore resistant public,’’ said Sher, who now works as an attorney.
Expectations for the talks -- the first since 2010 -- remain low, and many observers doubt they will last the entire nine months.
So far both sides seem intent on aggravating the other. During the past week and despite Palestinian objections, Netanyahu’s government approved or advanced plans for 3,200 units of new housing in areas Israel seized during the 1967 Middle East War.
Abbas, meanwhile, gave a hero’s welcome to 26 Palestinian prisoners released Wednesday. Most had been serving life sentences for killing Israelis, but Abbas demanded Israel set free 104 prisoners over the next nine months as a condition to return to the negotiating table.
Before the meeting, Livni told reporters Wednesday that reaching a peace deal was imperative to Israel’s future.
“It’s going to be complex and complicated, but I’m not ready to give up,” she said.
News assistant Batsheva Sobelman in The Times’ Jerusalem Bureau contributed to this report.