Who goes first? Talks stutter into life

‘And on my left…’  Secretary of State John Kerry introduces negotiators Tsipi Livni, for Israel, and Saeb Erekat, for the Palestinians as peace talks open in Washington (Photo: Getty images)

‘And on my left…’ Secretary of State John Kerry introduces negotiators Tsipi Livni, for Israel, and Saeb Erekat, for the Palestinians as peace talks open in Washington (Photo: Getty images)

Disagreements over the agenda overshadowed the first round of a new series of peace talks launched this week in Washington.

However, the fact that both sides have committed to nine months of negotiations would have been almost unbelievable just a few weeks ago.

The argument is, of course, not new. The Palestinians insist that the talks focus first on the issue of borders, while Israel demands that security arrangements must take precedence. On that basis, it will be an uphill task keeping the talks on the road.

After more than four months and six trips to the region, US Secretary of State John Kerry acted swiftly once he had the agreement of both sides.

In a tense cabinet meeting on Sunday, the Israeli government voted to approve the release of 104 Palestinian prisoners. In doing so, the government met one of the PA’s pre-conditions for the negotiations. Following that move, the chief negotiators from both sides flew to Washington for the launch.

The next round of talks will take place “in two weeks” according to Mr Kerry, in either Jerusalem or Ramallah. The timing is crucial because Israel is still responding to the recent decision by the European Union to issue new guidelines stating that EU-Israel co-operation agreements apply only to Israeli groups within the Green Line.

Israel is also trying to delay the labelling of settlement products in the EU. Israeli officials expressed the hope that the EU would wait with any policy changes while talks were ongoing.

One reason for the haste is to prevent the Palestinians from seeking further unilateral recognition of an independent state at the UN General Assembly next week, a step that could derail the talks.

Since neither side has been willing to commit to the other side’s main conditions, the administration has persuaded both to make do for now with letters of assurance. Though these remain confidential, the letter to the PA is assumed to contain a US commitment to a territorial solution based on the pre-1967 borders and the letter to the Israeli government most likely reaffirms the US position that the Palestinians recognise Israel as a Jewish state and renounce all further claims at the end of the negotiations.

The letters of assurance, however, will not be enough on their own to keep the sides at the table, especially because both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Mahmoud Abbas are both under pressure at home to withdraw at the slightest provocation.

Last updated: 12:06pm, August 1 2013