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Kerry aims for Mideast deal within nine months

Negotiators will reconvene in 2 weeks for talks

Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, and Tzipi Livni, Israel’s justice minister, shared the stage Tuesday.

Charles Dharapak/Associated Press

Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, and Tzipi Livni, Israel’s justice minister, shared the stage Tuesday.

WASHINGTON — Secretary of State John Kerry said Tuesday that Israeli and Palestinian negotiators would convene again in the Middle East within two weeks and that their goal would be to work out a comprehensive peace agreement within nine months that would lead to an independent Palestinian state.

“The parties have agreed to remain engaged in sustained, continuous, and substantive negotiations on the core issues,” Kerry said at the State Department, flanked by Tzipi Livni, Israel’s justice minister, and Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator.

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“Our objective will be to achieve a final status agreement over the course of the next nine months,” Kerry said. “We all understand the goal that we’re working towards: two states living side by side in peace and security.”

As they resume peace talks that have been moribund since 2010, Kerry and other Obama administration officials are seeking to counter the widely held perception in the Middle East that President Obama has been detached from the peacemaking effort and that this recent initiative is largely because of the efforts of his secretary of state.

Kerry and the Israeli and Palestinian negotiators met with Obama and Vice President Joe Biden at the White House for almost 30 minutes Tuesday morning. “The president used this opportunity to convey his appreciation to both sides for the leadership and courage they have shown in coming to the table, and to directly express his personal support for final status talks,” Jay Carney, the White House spokesman, said later.

But many experts say that Obama will need to become much more involved if the talks are to succeed.

Kerry was also at pains to battle skeptics who have all but written off the prospects for a breakthrough. “I know the path is difficult,” he said. “There is no shortage of passionate skeptics.”

But Kerry said that a peace agreement was possible and that both sides owed it to future generations to try.

The talks here Monday and Tuesday — which involved three-way meetings that included the United States as well as direct discussions between the Israelis and the Palestinians — were largely procedural and did not grapple directly with the difficult “final-status” issues like borders, the status of Jerusalem, and the Palestinians’ right to return to what is now Israeli territory.

But all of those vexing issues are to be taken up now.

“The parties have agreed here today that all of the final-status issues, all of the core issues, and all other issues are all on the table for negotiation,” Kerry said in his remarks, which were made in the State Department’s Benjamin Franklin Room.

“They are on the table with one single goal: a view to ending the conflict, ending the claims,” he added.

US officials said they expected Israel to take steps soon to improve the atmosphere for negotiations by relaxing controls and regulations that have hampered private-sector investment in the West Bank. A centerpiece of Kerry’s initiative is a plan to attract as much as $4 billion in job-creating investment in the West Bank, although most of it would depend on the successful resolution of the conflict.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel also cleared the way for the resumption of talks on the politically contentious decision, approved by his Cabinet, for the phased release of 104 Palestinian prisoners, most of whom have served 20 years or more for attacks on Israelis.

Kerry did not press for an Israeli commitment to freeze settlement construction as a condition for resuming talks. US officials made clear they were hoping for, but not counting on, Israeli restraint.

A senior State Department official told reporters that the United States was hoping that each side would “take steps to create a positive atmosphere,” but added, “It is fair to say that you are likely to see Israeli settlement activity continue.”

The next round of negotiations is to be held in Israel or the West Bank.

Martin S. Indyk, Kerry’s newly announced envoy to the talks, is expected to be present.

“Palestinians have suffered enough, and no one benefits more from the success of this endeavor,” Erekat said. “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.”

Livni, addressing Erekat, said the two sides needed to look beyond the problems that had frustrated talks in the past.

“You know, Saeb, we all spent some time in the negotiations room,’’ she said. “We didn’t reach dead end in the past, but we didn’t complete our mission. A new opportunity is being created for us, for all of us, and we cannot afford to waste it.”

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