Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas achieved no jaw-dropping breakthroughs as they relaunched direct peace talks Thursday with a determined nudge from the Obama administration.
But the two leaders did take a couple of steps that should keep the talks going for a few weeks, and perhaps even through the mine field that awaits them after that.
They agreed to meet again in less than two weeks and to set as their first goal the conclusion of a “framework agreement for permanent status.” The idea behind such a framework is to set out the tough decisions that each side will have to make in order to complete a comprehensive treaty.
Such an Israeli-Palestinian agreement should be “more detailed than a declaration of principles, but it is less than a full-fledged treaty,” said former Sen. George Mitchell, President Obama’s special envoy to the Middle East, in explaining the idea to reporters at the State Department Thursday afternoon.
This framework should not be thought of as an interim agreement, said Mr. Mitchell – who along with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton met with the two leaders in what were their first direct talks in 20 months. Rather, Mitchell said, it is a way to “establish the fundamental compromises necessary to enable the parties to flesh out and complete a comprehensive agreement.”
Mr. Obama is aiming for a year of talks to culminate in a peace accord.
Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Abbas agreed to meet next on Sept. 14 and 15, again with Secretary Clinton and Mitchell, though this time in the region. The venue is likely to be Sharm el Sheikh, the Egyptian Red Sea resort city, officials said Thursday afternoon.
The plan sketched out at Thursday’s talks has the parties meeting roughly every two weeks following that initial meeting in the region.
Mitchell, a seasoned negotiator perhaps best known for his part in achieving a Northern Ireland peace accord, refused to discuss with journalists the issue of settlements, the looming expiration of Israel’s moratorium on settlement construction, and other stumbling blocks. The parties, he said, agreed that their desire for success dictates that the talks “be kept private and treated with the utmost sensitivity.”
But Mitchell was willing to comment on Netanyahu’s reference to Iran in the morning’s opening session, where the prime minister spoke of the “changed” security threats facing Israel.
“Obviously the actions and policies of the current government of Iran have an effect in the region and in the wider world, and they influence what is occurring here,” he said. “And in my judgment,” he added, “they add another argument ... to why this conflict should be resolved.”