Middle East

Israeli and Palestinian peace talks resume in Washington

US Secretary of State John Kerry (second from left) hosts an Iftar dinner for Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni (third from right) and Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat (second from right)
Image caption Kerry, second from left, joined Israeli negotiator Tzipi Livni, third from right, and Palestinian negotiator Erekat, second from right, to break the Muslim fast

Middle East peace talks have resumed after Israeli and Palestinian negotiators dined in Washington DC with US Secretary of State John Kerry.

Mr Kerry said it was a "very, very special" moment, as they broke the traditional Muslim fast for Ramadan.

Earlier, US President Barack Obama welcomed the discussions but cautioned that "hard choices" lay ahead.

The talks resumed after three years as Israel approved the release of more than 100 Palestinian prisoners.

The releases, which split the Israeli cabinet, are to take place in stages over several months.

In the last five months, Mr Kerry has made six official visits to the Middle East in an effort to restart the negotiations.

'Daunting'

At the table on Monday evening at the US state department in Washington DC, Mr Kerry said it was "wonderful" the delegations had gathered in the US capital.

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Media captionMartin Indyk: ''It is a daunting and humbling challenge, but one that I cannot desist from''

He said it was "very, very special", and quipped that they had "not very much to talk about at all".

Seated opposite Mr Kerry was Israel's chief negotiator, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, and next to her was her Palestinian counterpart Saeb Erekat.

Former US Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk, appointed US special envoy to the talks, also attended the "iftar", the traditional meal at the end of each day of fasting during the Muslim month of Ramadan.

Mr Indyk, 62, said earlier he looked forward to working with both sides to "do our best to achieve President Obama's vision of two states, living side by side in peace and security".

The seasoned diplomat played a key role in the failed Camp David talks of 2000 under former President Bill Clinton.

The initial talks between Israeli and Palestinian representatives were scheduled to begin on Monday evening and continue on Tuesday, said the state department.

At a press conference in Washington DC on Monday, Mr Kerry urged both sides to make "reasonable compromises" for peace.

"I know the negotiations are going to be tough, but I also know the consequences of not trying will be worse," he said.

State department spokeswoman Jen Psaki suggested the goal of initial talks would be to chart a way forward rather than try to tackle the thorny issues between the two sides.

Hanan Ashrawi, a senior Palestinian official, told AFP news agency on Monday: "There must be a timeline and commitment from both sides on what they'll agree about. We hope for something good."

At the UN in New York on Monday, Ms Livni, the Israeli negotiator, said the talks would be "very tough and problematic".

But she added that efforts towards peace were "a mutual interest for Israel, for the Palestinians, the Arab world, the international community".

Major sticking points include the future of Israeli settlements on the West Bank, the status of Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees.

The issue of settlement-building halted the last direct talks in September 2010.

Settlements are considered illegal under international law, although Israel disputes this.

Also on Sunday, the Israeli cabinet approved the release of 104 long-term Palestinian prisoners by 13 votes to seven.

The inmates are to be released in four stages over a number of months, linked to progress in the peace process.

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Media captionWhy has there been a recent drive to restart Mid-East peace talks?

Their identities have not been published, but according to reports they include those who have killed Israelis or Palestinian informers.

Sunday's cabinet meeting was delayed by an hour as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sought support for his proposal.

The cabinet also approved a draft bill requiring a referendum for any peace agreement with the Palestinians that involves territorial concessions.

Mr Netanyahu's office said it was important that every citizen voted directly on such decisions.