Israeli and Palestinian representatives broke a three-year stalemate, launching negotiations aimed at producing a final-status peace agreement within nine months, a move that spurred new hopes for a historic breakthrough.
That optimism was evident Tuesday at the State Department in Washington, where the two sides came to the table in a move that took months of coaxing from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. A U.S. delegation led by Martin Indyk, former ambassador to Israel, is to join the next round of talks to take place in two weeks in either Israel or the West Bank.
"We cannot pass along to another generation the responsibility of ending a conflict that is in our power to resolve in our time," Mr. Kerry said.
The hope is that the parties will agree on the establishment of a Palestinian state, as well as the recognition of Israel's sovereignty as a Jewish state with guarantees for its security.
"It's not our intention to argue about the past, but to create solutions and make decisions for the future," said Israeli chief negotiator and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, before she kissed Mr. Kerry on each cheek, then strode over and shook hands with Saeb Erekat, the Palestinian representative.
"No one benefits more from the success of this endeavour than Palestinians," said Mr. Erekat, a veteran of many failed efforts of negotiating, whose tone is usually gloomier. "It's time for the Palestinian people to have an independent sovereign state of their own."
U.S. officials told reporters that the Palestinian leadership was expected to refrain from seeking further international recognition as a state until a peace deal is completed, an effort that one official likened to a potential "train wreck" as it would destroy Israeli willingness to negotiate a deal peacefully.
For its part, Israel also wants to ensure that "the final agreement is the end of the process," said Miriam Ziv, Israel's outgoing ambassador to Canada, insisting to The Globe and Mail that the Palestinians "cannot add something later."
To reach such finality, there is a considerable list of things to tackle, chief among them: the borders between Israel and the state of Palestine, which will be based loosely on the Green Line that separated the two sides in 1949 but with consideration for areas in which large-scale Israeli settlements have been built; the status of Jerusalem, including the degree to which the two parties will share the city; and the matter of Palestinian refugees who fled the area and whose descendants seek a right to return to their ancestral home.
Mr. Kerry has suggested the parties start with the matter of borders and security, so that there may be something to show for the talks that would keep them going for as long as necessary.
The Israelis and Palestinians have not met in negotiations since 2010. At that time, talks were aborted when Israel resumed construction of settlements in the West Bank, following a 10-month moratorium.
This time, under considerable pressure from the Americans, the Palestinian leadership yielded on two of its central demands: a freeze on settlement construction and a declaration by Israel that the basis of the borders to be negotiated would be the Green Line of 1949 (otherwise described as the frontier that existed on June 4, 1967, before Israel conquered and occupied the West Bank.)
In the end, the Palestinians settled for a questionable release from Israeli jails of some 104 long-term Palestinian prisoners, including many convicted of killing Israeli civilians.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described it as "the least painful" of possible concessions, and even that was hard to achieve – the cabinet debated six hours over it Sunday. Ministers voted to approve the release but only after the names put forward by the Palestinians have been vetted by a special committee. As well, the prisoners are to be freed a few at a time, depending on the progress of the talks as defined by the Israeli government.
While not declaring an official freeze on settlements, Israel has also scaled back construction in the West Bank, part of which is expected to be part of a Palestinian state.
Yielding any territory to a Palestinian state will be a hard sell for some of the more extreme members of Mr. Netanyahu's coalition government, including the Jewish Home party that is strongly backed by the settler community and even for many members of the Prime Minister's own Likud Party caucus.
However, the opposition Labour Party Leader Shelly Yachimovich has made it clear that her 15-member caucus will support the process should any coalition members refuse to do so.
The cabinet also agreed Sunday on a bill requiring that any peace agreement with the Palestinians be put to a national referendum. A majority of Israelis has consistently said it favours a peace deal.