NEW YORK // Palestinian and Israeli officials have agreed to hold direct talks in Washington next month, the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, announced yesterday. The meeting would mark the first time in 20 months that the two sides have met face-to-face. US President Barack Obama will host the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, and the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, for negotiations starting September 2 in the US capital, Mrs Clinton said. The Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and Jordan's King Abdullah II also will attend.
"There have been difficulties in the past, there will be difficulties ahead," Mrs Clinton told reporters at the State Department. "I ask the parties to persevere, to keep moving forward even through difficult times, and to continue working to achieve a just and lasting peace in the region." The invitation by the Quartet - the US, European Union, Russia and the United Nations - to start talks "contains the elements needed to provide for a peace agreement", Saeb Erekat, the Palestinians' chief negotiator, said in the West Bank town of Jericho, according to the Reuters news agency.
Mrs Clinton's announcement culminated weeks of behind-the-scenes arm-twisting and bargaining by Quartet representatives. The work was aimed at getting Israel and the Palestinians to agree on a framework for the resumption of talks. Mr Obama and Mrs Clinton, in particular, had pressed Mr Abbas and Mr Netanyahu to move beyond the indirect talks they have been conducting since May through US Middle East envoy George Mitchell, a former US senator who aided peace efforts in Northern Ireland.
The mediators were especially keen to get both sides back to the negotiating table before Israel's 10-month partial moratorium on West Bank settlement-building expires on September 26. Mr Netanyahu had insisted that talks on such knotty issues as the borders of a new Palestinian state, the right of return for Palestinian refugees and the political status of Jerusalem take place without preconditions - a concession he apparently won.
For his part, Mr Abbas also gained a victory of sorts: the two sides have reportedly agreed to put a one-year time limit on the talks. Palestinian Authority officials had feared the kind of open-ended talks that in the past have proven so frustrating and fruitless. In the West Bank, a senior official of Mr Abbas's Fatah party, said the decision by the Palestinian president to attend the talks would be submitted to the Palestine Liberation Organisation for approval. The Quartet's statement contained "many guarantees for the Palestinians", Mohammed Dahlan said.
"We are going based on the Palestinian conditions and not the Netanyahu conditions," Mr Dahlan added. Officials of Fatah's main rival, Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, rejected the talks. "Hamas rejects the American call for the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations," Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman, said in Gaza City. "The Palestinian people will not feel bound by the results of this misleading invitation."
Hamas seized control of Gaza in 2007 after winning parliamentary elections the previous year, ending a coalition government with Mr Abbas's Fatah party. Mr Netanyahu said he welcomed the invitation to begin direct peace talks with Palestinians. "Israel wants serious and comprehensive talks," the Israeli daily Haaretz quoted Mr Netanyahu as saying yesterday. "We are coming to these talks with a serious desire to reach a peace agreement between nations, while still preserving Israel's national interests, security being the foremost of them."
While Washington and the other members of the Quartet may have gained a diplomatic victory with yesterday's announcement, the two sides have a history of fraught negotiations. In July 2000, in what has been widely regarded as the closest the two sides came to a deal, two weeks of negotiations between the late Palestinian president Yassir Arafat and Israel's then prime minister Ehud Barak at Camp David collapsed in disappointment and mutual recrimination.
The latest round of direct Palestinian-Israeli negotiations were suspended when Israel began a military operation in the Gaza Strip in December 2008 in what it said was an attempt to stop rocket attacks from the Hamas-controlled territory on its southern towns and cities. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org * With agencies