In deliberately low-key fashion and at an undisclosed location, the first round of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations began in Jerusalem on Wednesday evening.
The agenda for the talks is still contested and they were almost cancelled after the announcement of new Israeli building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, but these were the first official negotiations to take place between the two sides for nearly three years.
Representing Israel was Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who over four years ago, as foreign minister in Ehud Olmert’s government, led the last serious series of talks with the Palestinians. With her was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s personal envoy, Yitzhak Molcho. On the Palestinian side were negotiators Saeb Erekat and Mohammed Shatia. Former envoy Martin Indyk represented US Secretary of State John Kerry, who worked for four months to bring the two sides together.
On the eve of the talks, Mr Kerry called up Mr Netanyahu to remonstrate over the announcements by the Israeli Housing Ministry and the Jerusalem planning council of new housing projects in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, beyond the 1,200 new homes about which the US had been notified in advance.
Mr Kerry was concerned that the new building would cause the Palestinians to draw out of the talks but, despite their protests, Israel’s agreement to release 104 convicted Palestinian terrorists induced them to turn up. The first tranche of 26 prisoners to be released were transferred on Tuesday night from Israeli prisons to Ramallah and Gaza.
It is still unclear how the talks will proceed as the sides are still in disagreement over the basic terms and the agenda. Israel has refused the Palestinian demand that the talks be conducted on the basis that they are to lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state within the pre-1967 borders. The low-profile being kept by both sides this week over the talks is partly in order to try to overcome the differences.
In addition to the announcements on new settlement building, events further afield could also affect the talks. Earlier on Wednesday, the IAF attacked rocket sites in Gaza following a Palestinian missile launch the previous evening towards Sderot. The missile was fired by the Islamic Jihad but the main concern is that Hamas will allow a further erosion of the ceasefire in order to disrupt the talks.