White House cautious as Kerry resumes Mideast peace talks

The White House downplayed prospects for new Israeli-Palestinian peace talks that began Monday, arguing negotiators face months of hard work to get a deal.

This week’s face-to-face meetings in Washington between Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat begin the first effort at restarting negotiations since talks faltered three years ago, during President Obama’s first term.

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The president vowed to make Middle East peace a second-term priority during his March trip to the region, putting pressure on him and Secretary of State John Kerry to make progress on an intractable issue.

“This is a promising step forward, though hard work and hard choices remain ahead,” Obama said Monday.

“The most difficult work of these negotiations is ahead, and I am hopeful that both the Israelis and Palestinians will approach these talks in good faith and with sustained focus and determination.”

The White House is well aware of past failures to get a peace deal, most recently when the two sides left the table in 2010 because of disagreements over borders and Israeli settlements.

The administration cautioned Monday that a solution won’t be reached overnight.

“There are some very serious issues that have to be resolved, and it’s not going to be easy,” said White House spokesman Josh Earnest.

“But a journey of 1,000 miles begins with the first step, and we’ll take that first step today.”

Longtime Middle East watchers say the stakes are especially high because this could be the last chance to negotiate a two-state solution.

While previous talks faltered during the second terms of Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, as well as in Obama’s first term, all sides worry they’re fast running out of time to create a viable Palestinian state as the Israelis continue building settlements on occupied lands and the Palestinian Authority sees its legitimacy evaporate.

“I think all three sides recognize that the odds are long but the consequences of failure are enormous,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of the liberal pro-Israel lobby J Street.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the parties have committed to working through the next nine months.

“If we’re making progress, and we’re continuing to make progress, this is not a deadline,” she said. “It’s not a stop end.”

In order to facilitate the process, Kerry announced Monday that he has tapped veteran diplomat Martin Indyk, who was Clinton’s ambassador to Israel, as U.S. special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

Kerry’s former staff director on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Frank Lowenstein, will serve as Indyk’s deputy and as a senior adviser to Kerry.

White House Middle East coordinator Phil Gordon is also expected to play a major role.

“Ambassador Indyk is realistic. He understands that Israeli-Palestinian peace will not come easily, and it will not happen overnight,” Kerry said.

“But he also understands that there is now a path forward, and we must follow that path with urgency.”

The White House has simultaneously sought to give the negotiations a push by giving them Obama’s imprimatur.

While Kerry has made their resumption a central goal of his tenure as secretary of State, he made it clear Monday that he’s only carrying out the president’s orders.

“This effort began with President Obama’s historic trip to Israel and Ramallah in March of this year,” Kerry said.

“And without his commitment, without his conversations there, and without his engagement in this initiative, we would not be here today.”

Ben-Ami praised Indyk for bringing to the table “active, determined and creative U.S. leadership and diplomacy.”

He credited Kerry’s half-dozen visits to the region since taking over from Hillary Clinton six months ago for making the preliminary talks possible.

Of particular note, he said, is Kerry’s push to include the Arab League in the talks. Giving the Palestinians cover to make concessions and Israel extra incentive to make peace.

“Kerry’s dogged determination over the past six months should put to rest the platitude that we can’t want this more than the parties themselves,” Ben-Ami said.

“One thing he has made crystal clear is that a two-state solution is a fundamental U.S. interest as well.”

Others say the timing is right for U.S. action.

There’s less the United States can do in the short term as Egypt unravels and Syria burns, said Dennis Ross, Bill Clinton’s special Middle East coordinator.

And paradoxically, he said, the turmoil across the region could make it easier for the Israelis and Palestinians to make progress because other players in the region have their own crises to deal with.

“Right now, between Israel and the Palestinians, you don’t have peace, but you have a kind of stability,” he said in a video for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, where he is a counselor.

“Do you want to have that issue collapse as well?”