Middle East

Israeli-Palestinian peace talks: Nine-month deal goal

Israeli and Palestinian negotiators will aim to reach a "final status" agreement over the next nine months to end their long conflict, the US secretary of state has said.

John Kerry said another meeting between the two sides would be held in either Israel or the Palestinian territories in the next two weeks.

This, he said, would begin the process of formal negotiations.

Mr Kerry said "all issues" would be on the table for discussion.

"They are on the table with one simple goal: a view to ending the conflict, ending the claims."

Mr Kerry said the parties were committed to "sustained, continuous and substantive negotiations on the core issues" that divided them.

He was speaking at a news briefing after two days of talks between the two sides in Washington DC.

'Courageous leadership'

Earlier, US President Barack Obama met the Israeli and Palestinian negotiators - Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and lead Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat - at the White House.

"I know the path is difficult. There is no shortage of passionate sceptics. But with capable, respected negotiators... I am convinced that we can get there," Mr Kerry said.

He reported that the meetings in Washington had been "constructive and positive".

And he praised the "courageous leadership" shown by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to get to this point.

At the same briefing, Mr Erekat, said he was "delighted" that all issues would be tackled.

"Palestinians have suffered enough... It's time for the Palestinians to live in peace, freedom and dignity within their own independent sovereign state."

Ms Livni said that after years of stalemate she was hopeful - though not naive:

"It is our task to work together so that we can transform that spark of hope into something real and lasting.

"I believe that history is not made by cynics. It is made by realists who are not afraid to dream. And let us be those people."

UK Foreign Secretary William Hague welcomed the announcement, adding that "2013 must be the decisive year for peace".

The peace talks between the two sides began again on Monday following a three-year hiatus after Israel approved the release of more than 100 Palestinian prisoners.

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

A former US ambassador to Israel, Martin Indyk, has been appointed US special envoy to the talks.

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

Referendum

The issue of settlement-building halted the last direct talks in September 2010. Settlements are considered illegal under international law, although Israel disputes this.

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.

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 Mr 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.