WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama brought senior Israeli and Palestinian negotiators to the White House on Tuesday to give a boost to his administration's third bid to relaunch stalled Middle East peace talks.
Obama was meeting with the teams on the second day of an initial round of negotiations that began late Monday with a dinner hosted by Secretary of State John Kerry at the State Department. Before seeing Obama on Tuesday, the negotiators met together without American mediators. After leaving the White House they were to return to the State Department for a three-way meeting with Kerry and top aides.
Kerry is expected to close out the round with a statement detailing any progress.
U.S. officials sought to dampen expectations, saying Kerry might say only that the two sides had agreed to meet again.
A second round would likely to be held in the region in the coming two weeks and would be overseen by Martin Indyk, the new U.S. special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, the officials said. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the meetings publicly.
In announcing Indyk's appointment before the talks, Kerry urged both sides to make "reasonable compromises" on the most serious issues that divide them over the course of the next nine months. The parties have agreed to keep at it until at least the end of next May.
Kerry spent six months of furious shuttle diplomacy in an effort to restart the negotiations that broke down in 2008. An attempt to restart them in 2010 failed after a single day. And before that, scores of diplomats have failed to broker peace decades.
After five years of stalemate, there has been a flurry of activity in recent days to set the stage for the talks that all sides agree will be protracted and difficult.
Diplomats long have stressed the urgency of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but Kerry thinks there are more reasons than ever to move quickly. In his thinking, time is running out.
Even if Israel wanted to, it would be difficult to remove mushrooming Israeli West Bank settlements whose population has doubled since 2000. Demographers have warned that it will be only a matter of a few years until Arabs outnumber Jews in the Holy Land. And last year, the U.N. General Assembly recognized a state of Palestine in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem — a move that could let the Palestinians take their complaints over settlements to the International Criminal Court.
The Israeli side is led by chief negotiator Tzipi Livni, a former foreign minister who was active in the George W. Bush administration's ill-fated peace talks with the Palestinians in Annapolis, Md., and Yitzhak Molcho, a veteran adviser to Netanyahu who was part of the Israeli team involved in Obama's two previous attempts to broker negotiations.
The Palestinian team is led by chief negotiator Saeb Erekat and President Mahmoud Abbas' adviser, Mohammed Shtayyeh, both of whom have been major players in failed negotiations with the Israelis since 1991.
Kerry spoke for about 45 minutes with representatives from the Israeli negotiating team late Monday and then for another period of about 45 minutes with the Palestinian side before sitting down for dinner on the top floor of the State Department. While he talked with the Palestinians, the Israeli team relaxed on an eighth-floor terrace overlooking the illuminated Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument.
The 90-minute dinner was billed as an Iftar meal, which breaks the day of fasting for Muslims during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. They sat at a rectangular table — five U.S. officials lining one side and the two Israeli and two Palestinian negotiators on the other — to dine on sweet corn and shell bean soup, grilled grouper, saffron risotto, summer vegetables and apricot upside-down cake.
"We're happy to welcome you. It's really wonderful to have you here — very, very special. We have, obviously, not much to talk about at all," Kerry joked after the participants sat down shortly after 9 p.m. at the table topped with a mint green cloth and goblets of mango iced tea.
The State Department would not disclose details of the discussions, saying only that they were "constructive and productive."
The Palestinians want a state in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem — territories Israel captured in 1967. Since that war, Israel has built dozens of settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, now home to more than a half-million Israelis. That makes a partition deal increasingly difficult, some say impossible.
Abbas also sought a freeze in settlement building. In guidelines for the talks, Kerry stipulated earlier this month that both sides refrain from unilateral steps, according to a senior Palestinian official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of a gag order Kerry slapped on negotiators. The Palestinians understand this to mean that while there will be no freeze, Israel will slow settlement construction and refrain from announcing new projects,
In exchange, the Palestinians have vowed not to go to the United Nations to seek recognition as a sovereign as long as talks are underway.
AP Diplomatic Writer Matthew Lee contributed to this report.