Formal Middle East peace negotiations to begin by mid-August

Israeli and Palestinian negotiators held a second and final day of preliminary, face-to-face talks in Washington Tuesday. The talks included a meeting with President Obama at the White House.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, with Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat and Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, said the goal is to reach a final status agreement during the next nine months.

“We all understand the goal that we’re working toward: two states living side by side in peace and security,” he said. “Two states because two proud peoples each deserve a country to call their own.”

Kerry said all final status issues are up for negotiation, which would include security, borders, refugees and the status of Jerusalem. The parties have agreed to what Kerry called “sustained, continuous, and substantive negotiations” on the issues, and will meet within the next two weeks in Israel or the Palestinian Territories.

Talks fell apart three years ago over Israeli settlement building.

Palestinian negotiator Erekat said Palestinians have the most to gain from an agreement.

“I am delighted that all final status issues are on the table and will be resolved without any exceptions, and it’s time for the Palestinian people to have an independent, sovereign state of their own,” he said.

Israel’s security is critical, said Justice Minister Livni.

“We came here today from a troubled and changing region,” she said. “We are hopeful, but we cannot be naive.  We cannot afford it in our region.”

The U.S. stands to gain if it can help increase stability in the Middle East, says Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen of the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington.

“You look around at the region, which is in turmoil, and there is a lot of uncertainty,” she said. “The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one area ironically – because people have always seen it as the ultimate intractable conflict – but this is one area where the U.S. still does have influence with both of the parties.”

Obama traveled to Israel in March, a trip that is credited with helping to renew direct talks between the Israelis and Palestinians.

(Photo: Marketa Skornickova)