WASHINGTON — Secretary of State John Kerry on Monday appointed a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, Martin Indyk, to shepherd Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, just hours before senior negotiators from the two sides sit down together for the first time in years.
Urging the parties to reach "reasonable compromises on tough, complicated, emotional and symbolic issues," Kerry acknowledged that the path ahead would be long and difficult. But he said Indyk had the respect and confidence of all involved and that his vast experience in Middle East diplomacy could only help what will surely be a protracted process.
"I think reasonable compromises have to be a keystone of all of this effort," Kerry told reporters as he announced Indyk's new position at the State Department. The appointment came a day after the department said the Israelis and Palestinians had accepted Kerry's invitation to resume direct talks on Monday evening. The initial negotiations, mostly over procedure, are expected to continue on Tuesday.
"I know the negotiations are going to be tough, but I also know that the consequences of not trying could be worse," Kerry said.
Indyk, who will be the administration's special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, "knows what has worked and he knows what hasn't worked, and he knows how important it is to get this right," Kerry said. "Ambassador Indyk is realistic. He understands that Israeli-Palestinian peace will not come easily and it will not happen overnight."
"But he also understands that there is now a path forward and we must follow that path with urgency," Kerry said. "He understands that to ensure that lives are not needlessly lost, we have to ensure that opportunities are not needlessly lost."
Indyk, 62, will take a leave of absence from his current job as vice president and foreign policy director at the Washington-based Brookings Institution think tank to take up what he called the "daunting and humbling challenge" of trying to forge a peace deal that has eluded successive U.S. administration.
He thanked President Barack Obama and Kerry for "entrusting me with the mission of helping you take this breakthrough and turn it into a full-fledged Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement."
"It is a daunting and humbling challenge, but one that I cannot desist from," Indyk said.
Indyk served as former President Bill Clinton's ambassador to Israel and was a key part of the failed 2000 Camp David peace talks. He was also a special assistant to Clinton and senior director for Near East and South Asian affairs at the National Security Council from 1993 to 1995. And, he served as assistant secretary of State for Near Eastern affairs in the State Department from 1997 to 2000.
In his new job, Indyk replaces David Hale, who had served as a place holder in the post until last month. Hale had succeeded former Sen. George Mitchell as the Obama administration's first special Mideast envoy. Mitchell resigned in 2011 following two years of fruitless and frustrating attempts to get the Israelis and Palestinians to engage in serious negotiations.
Indyk's appointment has been carefully choreographed to come just hours before senior Israeli and Palestinian negotiators sit down for a working dinner hosted by Kerry.
Kerry spent much of his first six months as America's top diplomat in frenetic diplomacy trying to get the two sides to agree to resume peace talks that broke down in 2008. An attempt to restart them in 2010 failed after a single day.
Since February, Kerry has made six trips to the region shuttling between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to try to cajole them into returning to negotiations.
Kerry announced on July 19 in Amman, Jordan, that the two sides had reached a basis for returning to the table, but stressed that it still had to be formalized. On Sunday, the State Department announced that the two sides had accepted invitations from Kerry to come to Washington "to formally resume direct final status negotiations."
That followed a decision by Israel's Cabinet to free 104 long-held Palestinian prisoners, a longstanding demand of Abbas.
Abbas has been reluctant to negotiate with Netanyahu, fearing the hard-line Israeli leader will reject what the Palestinians consider minimal territorial demands. The Palestinians want a state in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, territories Israel captured in 1967, but have accepted the principle of limited land swaps to allow Israel to annex some of the dozens of settlements it has built on war-won lands.
Abbas had repeatedly said he will only go to talks if Israel either freezes settlement building or recognizes the 1967 lines as a starting point for drawing the border of a state of Palestine.
Israel has made no such concessions, at least publicly, and the details of the framework for the talks brokered by Kerry remain shrouded in mystery.