WASHINGTON – President Obama on Monday urged Israeli and Palestinian negotiators to approach renewed peace talks “in good faith," saying the effort getting underway in Washington was “both possible and necessary,” although it faces formidable obstacles.
As representatives arrived to begin opening conversations, Obama said the first meeting between two Israeli and two Palestinian officials at the State Department on Monday evening was “a promising step forward, though hard work and hard choices remain ahead.”
He said he hoped both sides would approach the talks “in good faith and with sustained focus and determination,” adding that the United States will support them throughout the negotiations.
Obama’s personal commitment to the talks has been a subject of debate. After his first attempt at reaching a Mideast peace deal failed in 2010, Obama was said to be frustrated with both sides and reluctant to invest much personal capital in another effort unless there was a good chance of success.
He has assigned Secretary of State John F. Kerry to lead the effort, and Kerry has undertaken six trips to the region in the last four months to get it started.
Obama hasn’t commented extensively about the effort; his comments Monday came in a news statement. Even so, U.S. officials say Obama believes in the goal and will become personally involved in trying to bring negotiations to fruition if a peace deal is in sight.
Still unclear is the how active U.S. officials will be in shaping such a deal. Kerry has said that the United States intends only to be a “facilitator,” without pushing any particular solutions. But some experts say there is a good chance that the U.S. team will take a major role at some point.
Dennis Ross, a former Mideast negotiator for the United States, recalled that the Clinton administration floated its “Clinton parameters” proposal in 2000 because the two sides were stuck and wanted help.
“They said, ‘We want a proposal from you,’" said Ross, who is now with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Kerry on Monday morning announced the selection of Martin Indyk, a longtime U.S. diplomat who worked on the 2000 peace effort, to lead the U.S. negotiating team as special envoy.
Officials said they expect much of the negotiations will take place in the Middle East. The talks in Washington will focus on “procedural” issues, such as the agenda and location of upcoming talks.
After the first round Monday evening, the Israeli and Palestinian negotiators will take part in an iftar dinner -- when Muslims break their daily fast during the month of Ramadan -- then reconvene Tuesday morning for a few more hours of talks.
U.S. officials, worried that the talks might drag on too long, have asked the two sides to try to reach a deal within nine months. But they said they don’t view that as a hard deadline.