WASHINGTON -- Hours before Israeli and Palestinian leaders met on Monday to end a three-year freeze on negotiations, Secretary of State John Kerry named veteran diplomat Martin Indyk as the Obama administration’s special envoy to shepherd talks toward a final settlement of the decades-old conflict.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas sent senior negotiators to Washington, showing what Kerry called “courageous leadership” on an issue that the Obama administration hopes to revive within the next nine months.
Kerry told reporters here that Indyk, who served as U.S. ambassador to Israel and as assistant secretary of state for Near East Affairs during the Clinton administration, would work closely with the parties to “navigate the path to peace and to avoid its many pitfalls.” Frank Lowenstein, a longtime foreign policy adviser to Kerry, was named deputy envoy.
Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat were scheduled to meet U.S. counterparts for dinner Monday night, with talks set to begin Tuesday morning. The State Department said this inaugural session would wrap up with a statement issued sometime in the afternoon. That first announcement will be closely parsed by analysts who are eager to see whether Kerry’s team – led by diplomats who’ve tried and failed previously to broker a deal – can crack through stances that are even more hardened by now.
In brief remarks, Indyk called it a “daunting and humbling challenge.” Kerry and other politicians warned against getting overly optimistic for a breakthrough at this early stage.
“Many difficult choices lie ahead for the negotiators, for the leaders, as we seek reasonable compromises on tough, complicated, emotional and symbolic issues,” Kerry told reporters.
Analysts praised Kerry’s determination and said Indyk knows the challenges.
“He’s clear-eyed, he sees a solution as being important to the United States and to Israel and Palestine as well, and that’s a darn good place to start,” said Arthur Hughes, a former ambassador to Yemen and scholar at the Middle East Institute. “It’s something we can’t not try.”
Kerry, who has traveled frequently to the region since he became secretary of state, is so invested in the talks that he’s unlikely to be able to hand them off to an envoy, said Aaron David Miller, a vice president at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a former adviser to Democratic and Republican secretaries of state.
“John Kerry is going to be attached to these negotiations like a barnacle to the side of a boat if they’re going to work,” Miller said. “The amount of time and energy invested means that he is now permanently associated with these negotiations.”
Miller noted there is enough doubt about the possibility of success and risk that it “heightens the urgency to keep the talks afloat.”
“It’s a real investment trap for him,” Miller said.
Just as soon as plans for a summit were announced, both Israelis and Palestinians began violating an unofficial agreement to keep the talks quiet, quarreling publicly about conditions and goals.
On Sunday, the Israeli Cabinet narrowly voted in favor of releasing 104 Palestinian prisoners, one of the demands of the Palestinians before agreeing to direct talks.