It was an Iftar dinner at the State Department; the host was Secretary John Kerry and the main guests were Tzipi Livni from Israel and Saeb Erekat from Palestine. July 29, 2013 would be remembered in history as the day when the final status peace talks started.
Back home, President Mahmoud Abbas proclaimed authoritatively that in the final resolution, there will not remain a single Israeli soldier or civilian on the Palestinian soil. The talks, mandated by the leaderships of Israel and Palestine, are slated to last for nine months. The timeframe calculated for the talks bears significant symbolism; it is an average life cycle before a new baby is born. So is the expectation of the architects of the newly-seeded peace talks.
President Barack Obama, meantime, looked rather quiet. He met with the negotiators and later reiterated the importance of two independent states in the Middle East living side by side in peace.
There are, however, many doubters in Israel of any peace settlement coming through on Jewish terms. They have already started calling it capitulation. They could also not reconcile with the idea of a sovereign state, which for them would be a ‘terrorist state’, next doors. Where would be the borders of a secure Israel? How could they let someone else rule in any part of Jerusalem? Will the settlements finally be dismantled? Can the Palestinians living in refugee conditions be allowed to return to their homeland and threaten the very existence of the grandiose Jewish state with the flux of their numbers? Many a questions for them remain unanswered; so they have started calling it foul from the very beginning. But these elements can mostly be seen on the fringe. The latest survey of Israeli public opinion portrays 55 percent of the total population in favour of the current peace talks.
Kerry has been in his full fury during the past five months; the object was to create order in a disorderly landscape. Obama wanted his Asia Pivot`s projection felt. Kerry`s shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East took serious overtones. He worked it thoroughly and incessantly. The results were visible by July 28 when the Israeli cabinet was prevailed upon by PM Benjamin Netanyahu to give their nod for the prisoner release by a vote of 13 to 7. It was also agreed to negotiate on land swap with the Palestinians and put any accruing agreement to a referendum before its final approval.
It was amazing to learn that the Jewish state was willing to discuss what would amount to giving up its sovereignty in all of Israel, Jerusalem and Golan Heights. West Bank was excluded as it was not annexed by them. Netanyahu publicly was at pains spelling out the peace framework to his compatriots. Also, there has been a lot of hue and cry in Israel over the prisoners` release, which will take place gradually as the negotiations proceeded, while Palestinian families have expressed their spontaneous jubilation on hearing the news that their dear ones will be joining them soon.
On a historical note, Palestinians have stood for decades at the crossroads of sheer frustration and hope. They have seen Camp David, Oslo, Annapolis, and innumerable other attempts by successive US administrations dither. Millions have lived in squalor out of their homeland in other Arab countries in shanty dwellings where their generations have grown up in fear and uncertainty, scarcely dreaming of returning to their ancestral homes.
Anyway, the Palestinian groups, Hamas and PFLP, do not trust any peace overtures from Israel. The main Palestinian faction, the PLO, whose founder Chairman was Yasser Arafat, has only consented to engage itself in the talks with the conditions of recognising the pre-67 borders, East Jerusalem as the capital of the new Palestinian state, return of Palestinian refugees and dismemberment of Israeli settlements from the West Bank. Hamas would further demand of Egypt immediate the restoration of tunnels and opening of crossings to enable people of Gaza to get a breathing space for their economic survival.
For the chief negotiator of Israel, Livni, the talks would be complicated, but worth trying. A lot of patience and understanding would be required from both sides. Nothing should be leaked or pre-empted. That is why a code of secrecy is in place from the beginning. The positive and constructive atmosphere of the talks was, however, shared with the media by Obama and Kerry.
Besides atmospherics and liberal exchange of pleasantries, the content and context of the talks would matter the most. Nothing is far-fetched given the resolve from both sides, yet nothing is easy and simple. Kerry has talked much about history, but history is what we think about little. Ambassador Martin Sean Indyk, nominated by Kerry to move and monitor the discussions, knows firsthand the heavy cost of mistakes. Failures do not need to be replicated or new failures invented; neither success comes with good intentions. Kerry has rightly urged both sides to strive for “reasonable compromises on tough, complicated, emotional, and symbolic issues.” It has been a long, dark tunnel of indecision and inaction. But these nine months are important for the people of Middle East as well as for the whole mankind. Some light should come through the tunnel to Palestine in waiting.

 The writer is a formerly MD PTV and President IRS.