Kerry and Iran’s Zarif meet on nuclear accord, as talks extended

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Geneva __ Talks on a prospective Iran nuclear accord will be extended for at least a third day after US Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif met here for almost five hours Friday with European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.

The negotiations were productive, but there is much work still to be done, Iran’s deputy foreign minister Abbas Araghchi said as his delegation returned to the diplomats’ hotel just before midnight after the meeting.

There are only a few issues outstanding, but they are significant, another member of the Iranian delegation said.

Neither Kerry nor Ashton said anything upon their return from the meeting.

Talks are set to continue here on Saturday at 8:30am, Iranian diplomats said.

It’s unclear if a formal agreement will be signed here this weekend, but there was still some sense of expectation that it could happen, as well as signs that progress was being made on the substance of a prospective deal, for the first time in years.

“I want to emphasize there is not an agreement at this point in time, but the P51 is working hard,” Kerry said upon his arrival in Geneva Friday. “We hope to try to narrow those differences, but I don’t think anybody should mistake that there are some important gaps that have to be closed.”

As talks appeared to be making rapid progress Thursday, Kerry decided to fly here from Israel, where Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vehemently denounced the prospective deal as a historical mistake that would reward Iran for making few concessions. US President Obama called Netanyahu Friday to reiterate his commitment to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, as well as his preference to try to peacefully resolve the issue.

Foreign Ministers from France, Britain and Germany also flew to Geneva Friday, and held consultations with Ashton, before she hosted the five-hour trilateral meeting with Kerry, Zarif and their teams at the EU mission here. Political directors from the six powers seemed to be holding simultaneous meetings back at the hotel.

Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov decided only late Friday that he should come–apparently related to a crisis or roadblock in the talks that came up in thr afternoon, a diplomat said –and is expected to arrive in Geneva Saturday morning. The diplomat indicated that there are intense negotiations underway on the draft text of a prospective accord, involving parties submitting amendments and revisions. In Russia’s opinion, he said, some sides–he implied the U.S.–were making mistakes, which he declined to clarify.

China’s deputy foreign minister is also expected to arrive here Saturday, reports said. “We are working very hard,” a member of China’s negotiating team said Friday.

Iranian and western diplomats have said they hope to reach a framework accord that would seek to resolve concerns about Iran’s nuclear program in two phases. In the first phase, Iran would agree to suspend certain of its nuclear activities–such as 20% enrichment and the installation of more centrifuges–and accept more verification and monitoring, probably for six months, in exchange for limited sanctions relief. By halting the expansion of Iran’s nuclear program, a senior US administration official explained in a background briefing on the eve of talks Wednesday, that would give time and space for the P5+1 and Iran to try to reach a comprehensive nuclear agreement that could constrain Iran’s enrichment program and implement mechanisms to verify that it is not pursuing nuclear weapons, in exchange for the lifting of major oil and banking sanctions.

But Iran has made clear that recognition of what it sees as its right as a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty to domestically enrich nuclear fuel be part of any end state deal, while some western powers hesitate to grant Iran such upfront permission. Thus working out a framework agreement that seeks to lay out both a first step and end state deal at the same time is complex, even among negotiators of good will.

Separately, the International Atomic Energy Agency announced Friday that IAEA director general Yukiya Amano will travel to Iran on Monday (Nov. 11), his first visit in over two years.

Kerry is likely to stay in Geneva until Sunday, officials suggested. He will then travel to Abu Dhabi, before returning to the United States, but has had to cancel previously planned stops in Algeria and Morocco, the State Department said.

Negotiators seek progress at Iran nuclear talks

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Geneva__ Negotiators from Iran and six world powers said they were looking to make progress towards a nuclear deal at a new round of high-level talks due to get underway here Thursday.

“We hope to make concrete progress in the upcoming round,” Michael Mann, spokesperson for European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, said here Wednesday.

“The nuclear talks are complex and have entered a serious phase,” Mann said. Both sides “have agreed to keep the talks confidential in order to focus on the substance.”

“I believe there is a lot of work to be done,” Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told France 24 during a visit to Paris Tuesday. “We have made some progress, but there is a great deal of mistrust in Iran concerning the attitude, behavior and approach of some members of the P5+1.”

“I believe it is even possible to reach that agreement this week,” Zarif said, adding, however, that If “we don’t make a breakthrough at this round, it’s not a disaster.”

US officials, citing the seriousness of the new Iranian team and prospects for progress, have urged Congress to hold off on new Iran sanctions through the end of the year, arguing that a pause could help give momentum to intensified negotiations. In meetings with lawmakers, pro Israel groups and non-proliferations experts the past two weeks, Obama administration officials have said they are seeking to finalize an interim deal with Iran by January that would halt the advancement of Iran’s nuclear program, and then work out a comprehensive deal over the following six to 12 months.

“To the people of Israel, I want to say that the talks of the six world powers is the first step to stop the clock and prevent the nuclear program from going forward,” US Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman told Israel’s Channel 10 in an interview Sunday November 3rd. “Thus we will have the time to discuss a broad agreement that treats all the issues that concern us.”

Possible elements of an interim deal would likely include Iran suspending 20% enrichment, as well as possibly halting the installation of more centrifuges, and suspending work towards bringing online the Arak heavy water reactor, in exchange for some sanctions relief and the possible release of some Iranian frozen hard currency assets in banks abroad, unconfirmed reports have suggested. US officials have said they will not dismantle the architecture of major oil and banking sanctions in an interim step, but presumably in a broader end state deal.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, meeting with US Secretary of State John Kerry in Jerusalem Wednesday, warned against an interim deal with Iran that would loosen the sanctions regime.

“I’d be very worried of any partial deals that enable Iran to maintain those capabilities but begin to reduce sanctions because… I think this could undermine the longevity and durability of the sanctions regime,” Netanyahu said.

“Our goal is an Iran that has only a peaceful nuclear program,” Kerry said in remarks with Netanyahu Wednesday. “It is incumbent on us…to know with certainty that it is a peaceful program and there is no capacity to produce a weapon of mass destruction.”

Observers offered mixed assessments of how much progress to expect at this round of talks, scheduled for Thursday and Friday. Iran presented a proposal at a meeting with the P5+1 here last month (October 15-16), followed by technical talks in Vienna last week. Iran has also held two meetings with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and has invited IAEA chief Yukiya Amano to come to Iran next week (November 11), though Amano had not yet confirmed his attendance.

“If there is political will on both sides, it would not be out of the question for the two sides to announce a general framework of a [confidence building measure] CBM agreement at the end of this week, with the promise that experts can then flesh out details in the next 30 days, or something like that,” a former western official told Al-Monitor Wednesday. “We have been discussing these issues for a while now — there should be no surprises.”

(Photo: Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif met with French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius in Paris Tuesday November 5, 2013.)

Obama officials ask Congress to delay new Iran sanctions


The Obama administration is asking Congress to delay new economic sanctions on Iran in order to give momentum to negotiations on a possible nuclear compromise.

“We think that this is a time for a pause [in new sanctions], to see if these negotiations can gain traction,” Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman told the Voice of America Persian Service in an interview Friday.

Members of Congress have “been very effective partners as we’ve tried to approach this negotiation,” she said. “We need them to continue to be effective partners to reach a successful conclusion, and I have trust that they will be.”

Three White House officials—Jake Sullivan, national security advisor to Vice President Joe Biden, Phil Gordon, the National Security Staff Coordinator for the Middle East and the Persian Gulf, and NSS Senior Director for Persian Gulf Affairs Puneet Talwar – met with aides to Senate leaders on Thursday to press for a delay in new Iran sanctions legislation being considered by the Senate Banking Committee, a Senate staffer said.

Sherman also briefed House leaders earlier this week on her negotiations with Iran and other members of the P5+1 in Geneva last week.

Diplomats from Iran and the P5+1 are due to hold another round of negotiations in Geneva November 7-8.

Technical talks involving nuclear and sanctions experts from Iran and the P5+1 will be held in Vienna October 30-31, the office of European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said Friday.

The US team to the technical talks in Vienna will include Sherman’s deputy and top advisor on arms control issues James Timbie, State Department deputy Iran sanctions official Richard Nephew, who previously served at the NSC and Energy Department; and Treasury Department sanctions office chief Adam Szubin, US officials told Al-Monitor. (Meantime, State Department Iran sanctions czar Daniel Fried was in Europe this week for consultations with European counterparts on the EU sanctions regime.) Iran’s delegation to the Vienna talks will be led by Hamid Baidinejad, the Iran Foreign Ministry director of political and international development, Nasim reported, adding that the Iranian team will include legal, nuclear, technical and economic experts.

Israeli diplomats, in Washington for consultations this week, urged their US counterparts to press for a deal that would dismantle as much as possible of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, including its entire domestic enrichment program. They also pressed for no let-up in existing sanctions for nuclear concessions that Iran might agree to make in an interim deal, including suspending 20% enrichment.

“Nuclear energy without enrichment is the only reasonable compromise,” Israeli Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz told Al-Monitor Tuesday. Iran is entitled to “civilian nuclear energy. …The only request, is that they buy nuclear fuel from” abroad.

Iranian diplomats told their P5+1 counterparts at meetings in Geneva this month that they would be willing to discuss various elements of Iran’s nuclear program to find a compromise to address international concerns, but did not offer a very concrete, detailed proposal, several diplomats said.

The P5+1 have asked Iran to bring a more concrete proposal to the next meetings, the diplomatic sources said.

Sherman, in her VOA interview, also seemed to express regret for her comments at a Senate hearing last month that deception is in the Iranian DNA.

“I chose some words in response to a member of the Senate that I think caused some concern,” Sherman told VOA’s Siamak Dehghanpour. “And I think that those words spoke to this deep mistrust that President [Barack] Obama [has] discussed… We have to really work to get over that mistrust, and I think these nuclear negotiations will help us to do so.”

U.S. negotiator to brief Congress on Iran talks

Lead U.S. Iran negotiator, Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, is expected to brief Congressional leaders and relevant committee chiefs in classified session this week on the talks between six world powers and Iran held in Geneva last week.

In a brief conversation last week that did not delve into the details of the Iranian proposal, Sherman told House Foreign Affairs Committee ranking Democrat Eliot Engel “that the Iranians appeared serious,” but cautioned that the “devil’s in the details and made clear that the US negotiators will remain clear eyed as they seek to negotiate a deal to end Iran’s nuclear weapons program,” Engel said in a statement.

“Ranking Member Engel was pleased that the P5+1 reportedly had a productive first round of negotiations with the Iranians in Geneva,” spokesman Daniel Harsha told Al-Monitor Monday.  “But a change in tone is hardly sufficient. He believes pressure brought Iran to the table, and that pressure must be maintained until Iran has verifiably dismantled its nuclear weapons program.“

“The Iranians are masters at negotiation for the sake of buying time,” Harsha said.  “Given that, Ranking Member Engel would only be open to freezing further legislative action on the new sanctions bill if Iran quickly takes a number of concrete and fully verifiable steps to freeze enrichment and other elements of its nuclear weapons program. And he won’t even consider easing sanctions already on the books until Iran verifiably dismantles their program, leaving absolutely no possibility of a rapid ‘breakout.’”

Diplomats from the six world powers and Iran have agreed not to publicize the details of the Iranian proposal presented in two days of talks in Geneva last week (Oct. 15-16).

The new Iranian proposal “appears to have addressed some of our concerns, while leaving others unaddressed,” a senior US official, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor Monday. “That is what the upcoming talks will further flesh out. …[The process] has begun and now we need to see what the coming weeks will bring.”

Iran's deputy nuclear negotiators for the first time met with their US counterparts one on one for an hour in Geneva, and conducted the negotiations with their P5+1 counterparts in English, facilitating the pace and candor of the negotiations, western diplomats said.

But western diplomats were cautious in characterizing their reaction to the undisclosed Iranian proposal, describing a deal as still likely some ways off.

“We learned more about their program and their concerns,” a senior western diplomat told journalists in Brussels last week, Reuters reported. “However, it doesn't mean we are close to a solution and that we will have an agreement next month.”

We “got more today than we have ever gotten before, but there’s still a whole lot more we have to get,” a senior US administration official told journalists in Geneva last week, calling the process a “beginning.”

Regarding the seemingly lukewarm reaction, the US official said Monday to keep in mind that it’s not in the P5+1’s interest to sound overly enthusiastic about what the Iranians put on the table, “either from a negotiating perspective….or our own domestic politics.”

The administration would be “concerned about not looking gullible to Congress,” agreed Mark Fitzpatrick, a former State Department nonproliferation official now with the Institute for International and Strategic Studies (IISS) in London, in an interview Monday. Continue reading

Indyk staffs up to intensify Israeli Palestinian peace push


US Middle East peace envoy Martin Indyk is expanding his team as the U.S. prepares to intensify its role facilitating Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

“We've agreed that those talks should now be intensified and American involvement should be increased to facilitate these discussions,” Indyk told the J Street conference last week. (Sept. 30). “Our common objective is a final status agreement, not an interim agreement.”

To that end, he has grown his office's ranks.

Julie Sawyer, a career civil service officer who most recently served as Persian Gulf director on the National Security Staff, has joined Indyk’s team as his traveling senior aide. Sawyer previously served as a Middle East advisor to Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns.

Sawyer joins a team that already includes deputy envoy and longtime Kerry confidante Frank Lowenstein. Ilan Goldenberg, a former Middle East advisor at the Pentagon and Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff, has joined the office as chief of staff.

USAID deputy assistant Middle East administrator Hady Amr has joined the envoy’s team as an economics advisor.

Michael Yaffe, a career foreign service officer specializing in Middle East and arms control issues, has joined the envoy’s office to do international outreach with organizations such as the Arab League and the Quartet. Yaffe came to the envoy's office—next to the State Department’s Near East Affairs bureau—after serving as a professor and dean at the National Defense University’s Near East South Asia center for strategic studies.

The Pentagon has seconded an official to work with the team on security issues. David Wallsh, a Fletcher PhD candidate in Middle East and international security studies, joined Indyk's team last week to work on security issues related to the peace process. In addition, retired Marine Corps Gen. Jon Allen, the former Afghanistan and Centcom commander, has been leading a security dialogue with the Israel Defense Forces to help address Israel’s security requirements, Indyk told the J Street conference.

Indyk’s shop is expected to bring on someone to do outreach to the press, think tanks and the Hill, but sources would not yet disclose who that will be.

The growing ranks signal the seriousness of the negotiations effort, and the commitment to it by Secretary Kerry and President Obama, officials say.

“All core issues are on the table,” Indyk told the J Street conference last week. “Our common objective is a final status agreement, not an interim agreement.”

While Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, speaking Sunday at Bar Ilan University, said negotiations were stuck over the Palestinian refusal to date to recognize Israel as a state of the Jewish people and to thereby give up the right of return, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas reportedly made reassuring comments in a meeting Monday with some members of the Israeli Knesset.

Relatively little has leaked from the talks to date, which have been conducted with little fanfare or publicity in the region since Kerry formally relaunched talks in Washington in July and named Indyk as envoy.

(Photo of US envoy Martin Indyk addressing the J Street Gala September 30, 2013, by J Street.)

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Iranians, irked by Netanyahu comment, tweet photos of their jeans

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in his first Persian language interview broadcast into Iran Saturday, appeared to offend many young, educated Iranians with comments that they said revealed how deeply out of touch he is with Iranian society.

While Netanyahu, in the interview with the BBC's Persian TV service, repeated familiar talking points–dismissing the power of Iran's new, more moderate president Hassan Rouhani and arguing Iran should not be allowed to retain a nuclear enrichment capability–it was his assertion that Iranians are not free to wear jeans and listen to western music that set off a social media firestorm.

Iranians inside and outside of the country took to Twitter to mock the assertion, using the hashtags #jeans and #Iranjeans to send the Israeli leader photos of themselves wearing jeans and listening to music on their Apple devices, with messages expressing both humor and offense.

Tehran-based Iranian journalist Sadegh Ghorbani took to Twitter Saturday to offer to send Netanyahu photos of Iranians wearing jeans and listening to western music on their iPhones if, as he said, Israeli spies had not been able to provide that:

Ghorbani subsequently announced on Twitter Sunday that many Iranians were using the #jeans hashtag to protest the Israeli prime minister's distorted understanding of their sartorial choices.

BBC Persian journalist Bahman Kalbasi reported both the Netanyahu interview and the on-air and social media response:

RFE/RL journalist Golnaz Esfandiari also tracked the Iranian social media response to Netanyahu's comments:

An Iranian woman using the handle @miiilik welcomed Netanyahu to her room, with a photo of a few dozen pairs of denim stacked in the center of her closet:

Continue reading

Netanyahu to UN: Keep pressure on Iran


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged the United Nations Tuesday to keep up the sanctions pressure on Iran until there would be a verifiable and meaningful agreement that would inhibit Iran from having a rapid nuclear breakout capability.

“Keep up the sanctions,” Netanyahu urged the UN General Assembly as its final speaker on Tuesday. “Lift the sanctions only when Iran fully dismantles its nuclear weapons program.”

“The international community has Iran on the ropes,” Netanyahu said. “If you want to knock out Iran's nuclear weapons program peacefully, don't let up the pressure. Keep it up.”

An Iranian diplomat rebutted Netanyahu's allegations that Iran seeks nuclear weapons, and urged that Israel join the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and put its alleged nuclear weapons program under inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

“We just heard an extremely inflammatory statement by the last speaker in which he made made allegations against the peaceful nuclear activities of my country,” the Iranian diplomat, counsellor Khodadad Seifi, said in a formal response to Netanyahu's speech to the UNGA. “I do not want to dignity such unfounded allegations with an answer other than to categorically reject them all. He tries to mislead this august body about Iran's nuclear program.”

“The most ironic part of his comments was when he tried to be more royal than the king and set standards for Iran's nuclear activities and levels of enrichment,” Seifi continued. “He must know that no one can dictate to Iran what to do or not to do. As a party to the NPT, Iran is fully aware of its rights and it's fully committed to its obligations. .. Israel is the only non NPT Party in the Middle East.”

Full transcript of Netanyahu's remarks to the 68th United Nations General Assembly Tuesday below the jump: Continue reading

Netanyahu meets Obama amid US Iran diplomatic push

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrived at the White House Monday for a meeting and working lunch with President Obama and Vice President Biden, amid intensifying US-Iran diplomacy to resolve the nuclear dispute.

“We have to test diplomacy” with Iran, Obama said in remarks with Netanyahu at the White House Monday. “We, in good faith, will approach that. They will not be easy.”

“The Prime Minister and I agree that it is imperative that Iran not possess a nuclear weapon,” Obama said.

Netanyahu said he appreciated President Obama’s assurance that Iran’s words “have to be matched by real actions,” and urged that sanctions pressure not be relieved until there would be verifiable progress toward dismantling Iran’s nuclear program.

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Netanyahu’s White House meetings come ahead of his speech to the United Nations Tuesday, in which he vowed to deliver “facts” and straight talk to counter what he called Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s “smile campaign” in New York last week.

The Israeli leader’s first visit to Washington in 17 months comes as a new CNN/ORS poll shows that an overwhelming number of Americans–76% –back direct US-Iran negotiations to see if a diplomatic resolution can be found to address concerns over Iran’s nuclear program. The poll, conducted September 27-29, 2013, showed that large majorities of both parties–87% of Democrats and 68% of Republicans—favor the diplomatic outreach, while only one in five–21%–oppose it.

It also comes as former Israeli Defense Force (IDF) intelligence chief Amos Yadlin urged Netanyahu to face facts of his own, and recognize that even an imperfect Iran nuclear agreement is better than the status quo.

“Iran may well reject the Prime Minister’s demands (zero enrichment, removal of all the enriched material from Iran, the suspension of activity at the underground facility in Fordow and the reactor at Arak),” Yadlin wrote in a memo published Sunday (Sept. 29) by the Israeli think tank he now heads, the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) . “Nonetheless it is important to define an agreement that even if containing a certain risk that Iran could break out to military nuclear capability either under or in violation of the deal, still represents a significantly smaller threat than the dangers inherent in the status quo, which is likely leading to an Iranian bomb or to a military move to forestall it.”

Yadlin also suggested that there were signs in the statements made by American and Iranian leaders last week–including in Obama himself announcing his phone call with Iran’s Rouhani from the White House Friday–that there had been coordination on the the broad terms for a potential deal worked out in advance.

“Anyone examining the statements made by the US and Iranian Presidents could justifiably assume that there was prior coordination in the terms used about the principles of an expected agreement,” Yadlin wrote. “On the one hand, Iran’s right to develop sources of nuclear energy, and on the other hand, transparency and verification as well as ‘significant steps’ that have not been specified by either side.”

Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking to CBS’s 60 Minutes Sunday, said he thought an Iran nuclear deal could be reached quickly, even in less than three to six months, if Iran is seriously prepared to make a reasonable deal.

“If it is a peaceful program, and we can all see that – the whole world sees that – the relationship with Iran can change dramatically for the better and it can change fast,” Kerry said.

“If the United States is ready to recognize Iran’s rights, to respect Iran’s rights and move from that perspective, then we have a real chance,” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos Sunday.

Zarif is due to meet negotiators from the P5+1–the US, UK, France, Germany, China and Russia–in Geneva October 15-16 to lay out a more detailed proposal for resolving the nuclear issue within a year, beginning with a first step confidence building proposal.

(Top photo: Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Obama meet with their advisors at the White House Monday, by the Israeli embassy. Second photo: Netanyahu shakes hands with President Obama at the White House Monday, by the Associated Press. Cartoon of Netanyahu arriving at the UN amid signs of a party by Haaretz.)

Kerry aims for Israel-Palestine peace accord in 9 months


Flanked by Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, Secretary of State John Kerry said Tuesday that the United States will play the role of facilitator in final status talks between the parties that he hopes will lead to an agreement in nine months.

“The parties 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 told journalists at a press appearance with Israel’s Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Palestinian chief negotiator Saab Erekat at the State Department Tuesday.

“And they are on the table with one simple goal,” Kerry continued. “Our objective is to achieve a final status agreement over the course of next nine months.”

Describing the atmosphere in two days of talks as “constructive, positive,” Kerry said the parties had agreed to “remain engaged in sustained, continuous and substantive meetings” on the core issues over the next nine months, beginning with a meeting in two weeks in either Israel or the West Bank.

The United States will play the role of facilitator in the process, Kerry said. State Department officials said newly appointed U.S. peace envoy Martin Indyk will be spending much time on the ground in the region, going back and forth.

Kerry spoke after President Obama met briefly with the two teams Tuesday morning. The White House stressed its support for Kerry’s effort, after some reports suggested the president was keeping the peace effort, seen as a long shot, at arms-length.

Kerry meantime heaped praise on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas for giving another go to the peace process after a series of failed efforts over the past two decades.

Continue reading

Peace talks to get underway, Kerry names Indyk envoy

Israeli-Palestinian peace talks will resume in Washington Monday after a three year hiatus, the State Department announced.

Secretary of State John Kerry will host Israeli and Palestinian negotiators at an Iftar dinner Monday night following informal talks this afternoon at the State Department. Talks are scheduled to continue on Tuesday.

At 11am, Kerry is expected to announce that he has appointed former Clinton Israel envoy and Near East diplomat Martin Indyk as his lead negotiator, as Al-Monitor first reported was under consideration.

The Israelis will be represented in the talks this week by Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Yitzhak Molcho, and the Palestinians by Chief Negotiator Saeb Erekat and Mohammad Shtayyeh, the State Department said in a statement.

On Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that Israel would release 103 Palestinian prisoners over the duration of talks, which will last a minimum of nine months, he said. His cabinet voted in favor of the prisoner release, as well as to put any prospective peace agreement reached with the Palestinians to a referendum.

“This moment is not easy for me,” Netanyahu said in a statement to his cabinet Sunday. “It is not easy especially for the…bereaved families, whose heart I understand. But there are moments in which tough decisions must be made for the good of the country and this is one of those moments.”

Secretary Kerry, in his invitation to Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas Sunday, praised them for their courage. “Both leaders have demonstrated a willingness to make difficult decisions that have been instrumental in getting to this point,” Kerry said, according to the State Department’s Jen Psaki. “We are grateful for their leadership.”

(Top Photo: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US Secretary of State John Kerry, Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, May 23, 2013 Photo: Courtesy – Israel GPO. Second photo: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is greeted by Palestinian Chief Negotiator Saeb Erekat in the Jordanian capital Amman on June 29, 2013. Jacquelyn Martin / AFP / Getty Images.)