Talks resume: The stakes are high in the Middle East negotiations

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The substantive talks on a Middle East peace agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians are set to begin Wednesday in Jerusalem.

Both teams will be headed by senior officials, the Israelis by Minister of Justice Tzipi Livni and the Palestinians by chief negotiator Saeb Erekat.

The process now beginning, which can last up nine months, is a tribute to the strenuous efforts by Secretary of State John F. Kerry, who identified it as his top project in President Barack Obama's second term. That is sound judgment, given that the absence of the division of the land into two states, living side by side, recognized and cooperating with each other economically, has been a dangerous source of tension between the West and the Muslim world since 1948, producing at least three wars.

This issue has resisted the efforts of many a good leader to resolve it, including Presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush and British prime ministers such as Tony Blair. The project has cost the lives of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, both assassinated by extremists on their side in retribution for their efforts to make peace.

No one should imagine that these talks will be easy. The quick end that came to Mr. Obama's efforts to relaunch them in 2009 is clear evidence of the sensitivity of the subject. Back then the Palestinians made Israeli willingness to suspend expansion of settlements in the West Bank a condition of continuing the talks, the Israelis refused and the talks sputtered out, not to be resumed until now.

The issues to be resolved are tough, but also have been thoroughly examined over the years, making the outline of a solution less than mysterious.

These include the boundaries of the two states, tied to the question of the fate of the Israeli settlements -- population 500,000 -- on land most of which will become Palestinian, in the West Bank. There is the right of return of Palestinians -- an estimated 5 million -- to Israel and to the newly independent Palestine. There is the question of the city of Jerusalem, where the first meeting in the region will take place, which hosts holy sites of Christianity, Islam and Judaism and which both states want as their capital. There is also the fundamental question of security for the two states.

But the key fact now is the talks are beginning. The Israelis are willing to sweeten the pot by releasing an initial 26 longtime prisoners of the estimated 6,000 Palestinians that they hold. The Israelis have equally taken an early poke at the Palestinians by announcing Sunday their intention to build housing for another 1,200 settler families in the West Bank, testing the Palestinians' commitment to the talks.

What is required by both sides now is that they proceed with the talks, undistracted by provocations. Mr. Kerry and Mr. Obama will need to stand ready to act decisively if this vital train starts to come off the tracks. The stakes are very high.

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