WASHINGTON — With a cast of characters that has presided over several failed Middle East peace efforts, the Obama administration launched a fresh bid Monday to pull Israel and the Palestinians into substantive talks.
Despite words of encouragement, deep skepticism about the prospects for success surrounded the initial discussions, which opened with a dinner hosted by Secretary of State John Kerry. He named a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, Martin Indyk, to shepherd what all sides believe will be a protracted and difficult process.
Indyk, who played roles in the Clinton administration's multiple, unsuccessful pushes to broker peace deals between Israel and Syria and Israel and the Palestinians, will assume the day-to-day responsibility for keeping the talks alive for the next nine months.
The Israeli side will be led by chief negotiator Tzipi Livni, a former foreign minister who was active in the Bush administration's ill-fated Annapolis peace talks with the Palestinians, and Yitzhak Molcho, a veteran adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who was part of the Israeli team involved in President Barack Obama's two previous attempts to broker negotiations.
The Palestinian team will be led by chief negotiator Saeb Erekat and President Mahmoud Abbas' adviser, Mohammed Shtayyeh, both of whom have been major players in failed negotiations with the Israelis since 1991.
Despite the presence of so many people whose past experience does not include success, Kerry and other officials voiced cautious optimism about the resumption of talks that he painstakingly negotiated during six months of shuttle diplomacy that began with Obama's own trip to Israel in March.
"It sounds like we're lucky to have decades of experience ready to come back to the table and make an effort to push forward," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.
Previous attempts to get talks started have foundered on Israel's continued construction of Jewish settlements on land claimed by the Palestinians, and Palestinian attempts to win international recognition as a sovereign state in the absence of a peace deal. Actual negotiations have died because the two sides have been unable to compromise on the most serious disagreements between them: borders, the status of Jerusalem, refugees and security.
With a U.S.-imposed gag order on revealing any details about the substance or framework of the current talks, gauging progress will be difficult.