US & Canada

Inside the Israeli and Palestinian delegations

Image caption The leaders had direct talks for the first time in almost two years

The eyes of many were on the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in Washington DC but what was it like behind the scenes with the two delegations? The BBC's Gidi Kleiman was with the Israelis, while Jeannie Assad was with the Palestinians.



The Palestinian delegation gathered in Amman, Jordan, getting ready to accompany the Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to the talks in Washington.

Also with Mr Abbas was the press delegation of five Palestinian journalists, including myself as the only one from an international media organisation.


There was a bigger than usual press pack travelling with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Of the 40 or so journalists, 12 were from the foreign press. There were also more spokespersons and media advisers than usual.

The dress was very informal with very few suits, and some journalists and staff even in jeans and T-shirts.



Departure time to Washington came and we were on a comfortable private plane for the long flight.

Boarding the plane with Mr Abbas's negotiating team, I noticed a bedroom with en-suite bathroom the president would be using. One of his security guards allowed me in to see. It was rather nice.

Mr Abbas eventually boarded the plane, saying: "Salamu alaykum." Before taking his seat he was over, shaking our hands. "How are you doing?" he asked me. "Everything OK?"

He shook the crews' hands one by one. None were Palestinian. They were a mixture of foreign and Arab - Lebanese, Moroccan, Egyptian.

The journalists had unlimited access to the president.

The rais (meaning president in Arabic) sat down for take-off. The president took out his cigarettes and had a smoke. His team were going over their documents. At dinner time, the rais changed. He wore his dishdasheh, the long dress that Arab men traditionally wear in the Gulf. It was to be his sleepwear for the night.


It was a standard medium-size jet chartered for this flight. The prime minister and his staff sat in business, the press in economy. You couldn't just walk up and have a chat with Mr Netanyahu. There were lots of security personnel in the middle.

For dinner, one of the side dishes was hummus, which both the Palestinians and the Israelis claim as their national dish.



Sitting near Mr Abbas, I watched him and his negotiating team working on last-minute changes to the speech he was to deliver in Washington at the opening of the talks.

Over dinner and dessert they talked about what could be expected. The feeling was it wasn't going to be what they had hoped for.

They had wanted to go to the talks with a guarantee that Israel would not renew its settlement activity in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Come to Washington and then we will take it from there, the Americans had apparently told President Abbas.

The president agreed to an interview, coming over with Turkish coffee in hand. He told us he was going to the talks in good faith and because he believed in peace through negotiations.

But at the same time he told me it would be difficult for him to continue the talks if the settlements continued. He would pull out, he said, if Israel did not extend the moratorium.

Mr Abbas knew it wasn't going to be easy. Puffing on his cigarette, he said he wanted to give it a chance but he hoped there were good intentions from the other side.

He finished his cigarette and coffee and finished talking, wished us good night and went to bed.


Prime Minister Netanyahu was in buoyant mood as he greeted the travelling press in the back of his plane.

Mr Netanyahu expressed cautious optimism regarding the possible success of the peace talks in Washington.

His staff said that he sought results, not excuses. Some humorous comments were made by him and members of the press. The prime minister does apparently have a sense of humour. After that he and his staff disappeared to the front of the plane.



When the news came about four Israelis gunned down in the West Bank, Mr Abbas appeared upset. He gave orders to find the perpetrators. It was another thing to worry about and came at a bad time.


Mr Netanyahu's top media adviser, Nir Hefetz, walked into the press cabin. News had just arrived that four Israeli settlers were shot dead in an attack near the West Bank settlement of Kiryat Arba.

The mood changed immediately, and the journalists began to update their copy.

Just after landing, Mr Hefetz returned to the back of the plane with a statement condemning the attack. The motorcade awaited and journalists raced to their cars as they frantically filed their stories.



Mr Abbas had a lot think about.

It wasn't easy for the Palestinian president to go to direct talks. It was to be the first time he had spoken to an Israeli leader in 18 months. His people back home were not happy about it. The settlement issue was a tough one.

He was to tell the Israelis and the Americans that continuing settlements was a "deal-breaker", one of his aides told me.

At the Ritz Carlton hotel in Washington, security was high. The 18th floor was occupied by the president and his aides along with the security guards.

The work continued and there were more changes to the speech. By the time Mr Abbas read it out in the White House, it had been changed 39 times.


The first night was relatively quiet, Mr Netanyahu met Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. It was pooled coverage, so little work for most of the journalists, which was fine as the fog of jet lag had started setting in heavily.

The press were scattered in rooms all over the hotel. Mr Netanyahu and the official delegation were in separate secured floors. When travelling with him there is always heavy security. Wherever you look you always see security personnel with earpieces.

During breakfast in the hotel restaurant, negotiators, journalists and security staff queued in the same line for the buffet. Mr Netanyahu's staffers brushed off questions before they left with him to head for the White House for a meeting with President Barack Obama. This meeting was closed to journalists.

Image caption The talks were also attended by the Egyptian president and the king of Jordan



In the afternoon we were driven to the White House for the speeches by Mr Obama, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Mr Netanyahu, Jordan's King Abdullah and Mr Abbas. We were taken into the White House press room where we encountered the Arab travelling press.

Almost everybody posed for silly pictures of the press room - an iconic location for journalists. After a couple of hours we were ushered into the ceremonial hall where the leaders were to speak.

The room was packed. I managed to get a peek of the stage and delegation seats between the legs of a cameraman.

First came the Palestinian team, looking at the gold-coloured seats for names. Palestinian negotiator Nabil Shaath took a picture of the stage with his mobile phone.

After a while the Israeli delegation walked in and passed by the Palestinians. Hands were shaken and smiles broke out. They were joined by the Egyptians, Jordanians, Senator Mitchell and, Mrs Clinton and Tony Blair.

The five leaders entered the room and took their seats on the podium. President Obama was the first to speak. Behind him the Egyptian president was shaking his leg impatiently.

A lot of the delegation members looked tired. It might have been the jet lag and the exhausting schedule in DC.

Mr Netanyahu, returning to his seat after finishing his speech, clenched Mr Abbas's hand in a firm handshake and looked intensely into his eyes.

The Israeli prime minister said something, with the movement of the lips suggesting it was "thank you".



After the one-on-one with Prime Minister Netanyahu, Mr Abbas said the meeting was positive. He told his aides he had told him about all his concerns and explained to him everything that was discussed with the previous Israeli government.

Not only had Mr Netanyahu listened carefully, but he took down notes, Mr Abbas added.

The Palestinian president said he had told the Israeli prime minister that the settlements must stop.

Now we wait and see what happens on 26 September [the day when Israel's partial freeze on building for Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank ends].


Most of the Palestinians are seasoned negotiators - the changes in their appearance over the years are testament to the successes, but mainly the disappointments, of past negotiations.

Has Prime Minister Netanyahu undergone a fundamental change or was it just change of tactics? Were these talks for real or just a way to avoid pressure from the US and the international community to move forward in the peace negotiations with the Palestinians?

It was the subject of much debate among the travelling press as we were driven in the crawling afternoon traffic from Washington DC to Andrews Air Force Base.

It offered a good opportunity to ponder on the significance of the last few days, in which we trailed Mr Netanyahu. Did he change? His speeches, his statements, gestures, all suggested a change of heart.

In a speech at the White House, he said that he came to find a historic compromise that will enable both peoples to live in peace, echoing the words of such peace-makers as Israel's slain Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

He said to the Americans, to the Palestinians, to the travelling press: "I am serious about peace, try me."