WASHINGTON ““ Tell us what you want. Now listen to what your partner wants. Now tell us what your partner wants.
In slow, almost excruciating increments, talks between Israelis and Palestinians are taking on the dimensions of counseling sessions moderated by the United States.
Heading into a White House dinner Wednesday evening with President Obama and the Jordanian and Egyptian leaders, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas outlined their bottom lines: security and recognition for the Jewish state, settlement halts and final-status negotiations for Abbas.
By mid-morning Thursday, when they met in the upper reaches of the U.S. State Department beneath the watchful eye of a portrait of Benjamin Franklin, it was clear that some mediation had taken place in the cavernous room named for the first U.S. secretary of state.
Netanyahu was more forthcoming about final-status talks, if not settlements. Abbas was just as adamant about Israeli concessions but was more forthcoming about understanding Israel’s security needs.
A bit later George Mitchell, the top U.S. envoy to the region, took a break from talks with the two leaders to announce that they had agreed to meet in their home region in two weeks, around Sept. 14 or 15, and to follow up with meetings every two weeks.
Mitchell said the first goal was to reach a "framework agreement" that would outline the necessary compromises, and then work out the details that would flesh out a full agreement. Setting a cordial tone was key, he said.
"We have encouraged the parties to be positive in their outlook and in their actions," Mitchell said.
In her opening remarks at a news conference Thursday morning with the two leaders, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made it sound as if half the battle was getting to the point of talking.
“I know the decision to sit at this table was not easy,” Clinton said. “We understand the suspicion and skepticism that so many feel, worn out after years of conflict and frustration.”
But Clinton pressed the parties to get quickly to the core issues — the fate of Jerusalem, the Palestinian-Israeli borders, the question of Palestinian refugees.
“We are convinced that if you move forward in good faith and do not waver on behalf of your people, we can resolve all of the core issues within one year,” she said.
That remains to be seen, of course. Critics have said that lip service and photo ops may be the only achievement to come from this summit and the negotiations that follow.
For the time being, merely holding a meeting to launch talks gives each leader something to take back home. Netanyahu can argue to the world and the Israeli public that he is interested in serious negotiations. If there are gains for the Palestinians, Abbas will be able to show the Palestinians that they can wring concessions from Israel by talking rather than by violence — the Hamas method.
Meanwhile, Obama will get credit for relaunching direct negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis after a two-year hiatus.
Netanyahu, who until now has insisted that security and incitement are his more immediate priorities, suggested that he is interested in more than the appearance of talks and is ready to tackle the more vexing core issues.
“The core issues that you described, Madame Secretary, are things we have disagreements on, but we have to get from disagreements to agreement,” Netanyahu said at Thursday’s news conference.
Netanyahu, who on Wednesday evening recognized a Palestinian claim to the land of Israel — a breakthrough for the scion of a family and tradition that for decades upheld an exclusive Jewish claim to the land — told Abbas that he “respects” the Palestinian right to sovereignty.
For his part Abbas, whose remarks at the White House dinner constituted a laundry list of Palestinian plaints, was expansive Thursday morning in acknowledging Israel’s security needs, especially in the wake of two terrorist attacks in two days that left four Israeli civilians dead, including a pregnant woman.
“We not only condemned them but also followed on the perpetrators and found the car that was used, and arrested those who sold and bought the car,” he said, touting the performance of a Palestinian security service he said was still “young.” “Security is of essence, it is vital for both of us. We cannot allow for anyone to do anything that would undermine your security and our security.”
At the same time, the leaders held their ground on significant differences that threaten, even at this early stage, to derail the talks.
Abbas has threatened to bolt the talks unless Netanyahu extends a 10-month partial moratorium on settlement building that expires on Sept. 26. Netanyahu has indicated that he will let the moratorium lapse and not reintroduce it until an agreement is in place.
Abbas gave no ground on Netanyahu’s demand that Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state, telling him that it was enough in 1993 that the Palestinians recognized Israel. Netanyahu holds that recognition of a Jewish claim is key to ending the Palestinian culture of incitement, which he says is a cause of terrorism.
“In this document we give enough to show our intentions are good,” Abbas said.
The meetings were launched Thursday with a meeting of the two negotiating teams. They then broke up into one meeting of Mitchell, Clinton, Abbas and Netanyahu in Clinton's office, and another of the negotiating teams to work out the details of the mid-September follow-up meeting.
After that, Mitchell reported, Abbas and Netanyahu went into a face-to-face meeting.