Amid conflicting accounts of the basis on which Israel and the Palestinians are set to renew negotiations, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday night hailed the resumption of the talks, announced Friday by Secretary of State John Kerry, as fulfilling Israel’s “vital strategic interests.”
Israeli ministers said the government had held firm to its insistence on there being no preconditions for resuming the negotiations, while Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas had given ground. According to the ministers, the talks would resume without Israel agreeing to a settlement freeze, without Israel agreeing to negotiations for a Palestinian state on the basis of the pre-1967 lines, and without there first being a release of longtime Palestinian prisoners. Still, Israel would release Palestinian prisoners, with Israeli blood on their hands — up to 350, according to some sources — in phases as the talks continued, they said.
However, a Palestinian official said Abbas agreed to restart talks only after receiving a letter from Kerry guaranteeing that the basis of the negotiations will indeed be Israel’s pre-1967 borders. The official, quoted by AP, said Kerry’s letter also stipulated that both the Israelis and the Palestinians must refrain from taking any steps that would jeopardize the outcome of the talks. Thus, the unnamed official said, Israel is not to issue new tenders for West Bank settlements, while the Palestinians are to refrain from pursuing action against Israel at international organizations.
In his statement Saturday night, Netanyahu said the negotiations were vital in order “to seek to bring to an end the conflict between us and the Palestinians” and important, too, “given the challenges we face, primarily from Iran and Syria.” Israel, he added, had two goals in the talks: “Preventing the creation of a single binational state between the [Mediterranean] Sea and the Jordan [River], which would endanger the future of the Jewish state, and preventing the establishment of an additional Iranian-sponsored terrorist state on Israel’s borders, which could endanger us no less.”
He thanked Kerry for his “great efforts” to get the sides back to the negotiating table and vowed that he would “insist upon Israel’s security need and its vital strategic interests.”
Israeli sources said the talks were set to last from 9-12 months. Israel would be represented by Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Netanyahu envoy Yitzhak Molcho and the Palestinians by veteran negotiator Saeb Erekat.
Kerry said Friday he expected the talks to resume in Washington next week, but Israeli officials said logistics might require a further week of preparation.
Israeli sources added that Erekat would raise demands for talks on the basis of the pre-1967 lines and for a settlement freeze — but these would be issues to negotiate at the table, not preconditions. Also, they said, while Israel would release most or all of the more than 100 Palestinian security prisoners held since before the Oslo accords were signed 20 years ago, they would go free in phases, depending on the progress of the talks.
A first group of 82 such prisoners, many of whom have Israeli blood on their hands, could be released within four to six weeks, they said. No veteran Israeli Arab prisoners would be freed, Channel 2 reported on Saturday night.
Channel 2 also said Kerry had threatened to halt US aid to the Palestinians if Abbas did not come back to the table.
“It’s been proven that when we stand firm in our demands, we can enter talks without preconditions, without construction freezes, and certainly without the crazy demand that we base negotiations on the ’67 lines,” Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett (Jewish Home) said Saturday. “As negotiations get underway, we will insist on continuing construction in Jerusalem and the West Bank. History has taught us that building produces life, while dismantling settlements produces terror.”
Bennett added that, in light of recent developments, Israel would not allow the European Union to be part on the negotiations. The EU last week issued a directive forbidding joint projects with institutions that are located over the Green Line or that are active in the settlements.
Former foreign minister and senior coalition partner Avigdor Liberman expressed deep skepticism regarding the chances of reaching a final-status agreement with the Palestinians. Liberman said in a statement Saturday that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could not be solved, only managed, at least for the next few years.
“Holding negotiations is important, but holding them based on reality and not illusions is more important,” said Liberman. “The best we can strive for is a long-term interim agreement based on security and economic cooperation.”
Earlier, Livni, Israel’s senior negotiator with the Palestinians, said there was no risk for Israel in restarting negotiations but real opportunity.
“Our agreement with the Palestinians and the Americans was that we would let Kerry be the spokesman of the agreement [on returning to the talks]. I believe trust is an essential part of talks and I don’t want to risk that by patting ourselves on the back,” a cagey Livni told Channel 2′s Meet the Press Saturday evening. “That said, it must be stated that Israel is entering the negotiations, which I hope will start soon, while maintaining its vital diplomatic and security interests.”
Livni stressed the fragility of the agreement to enter peace talks, but stated that there was nothing in the initial basis for the negotiations that should prevent anybody, including the right-wing members of the Israeli government, from going ahead with them. “I have no doubt that as people hear more about the details of the agreement [under which the talks are resuming], there will be more support for the process itself,” said Livni.
As if to confirm her statement, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon (Likud) said Saturday that, “We had insisted on entering talks without preconditions, including the Palestinians’ demands that we return to the ’67 lines, freeze settlements and release prisoners.”
“We are entering the talks with clean hands and with an honest desire to reach an agreement on ending the conflict. I only hope the Palestinians are coming to the table with the same attitude,” said Ya’alon.
“Everything is on the table,” said Livni, the Hatnua party leader and a former foreign minister. “But there is a difference between Israel’s position before entering the room for talks and the positions we will present when seated around the table. Along with my great satisfaction over the understandings we reached yesterday, I realize it is a great responsibility. Things will be on the table and we will have to act responsibly to protect Israel’s interests. I have done it before and I think that it is now understood that I maintained those interests last time around.”
Livni stressed that entering the negotiations doesn’t just pose a risk of future concessions, it also produces real opportunities for favorable developments for Israel.
Asked whether the current Israeli coalition can survive peace talks in which everything, including final borders, settlement evictions and the fate of Jerusalem is on the table, Livni said the government “has to go ahead with the talks because of their vital importance to Israeli interests.”
“When Netanyahu decided to enter the talks, he didn’t become a member of the Hatnua party. He made the decision based on his own principles. I believe the entire government, even the right, can accept those principles,” said Livni.
Livni made sure to temper expectations and stress the gradual nature of the process, but concluded on a positive note. “We have proven that there is hope,” she said.
Addressing the topic of the release of Palestinian prisoners as part of a peace agreement, Livni said she preferred that those released be terrorists who operated before there were any understandings between Israel and the Palestinians and have been serving their sentences for 25 or more years, over those who carried out their attacks in order to harm the process.
Livni was speaking in response to an earlier statement by Minister of Intelligence and International Relations Yuval Steinitz, who said Israel would release an undisclosed number of Palestinian prisoners in order to get talks off the ground. He added that a number of the Palestinian prisoners to be released were “serious” cases, but that a large portion of them had already served many years.
During an interview with Israel Radio, Steinitz said that the decision was in line with the government’s approach all along, meaning that it intends to free Palestinian prisoners in phases and would only do so as talks are resumed, not before. He also said Israel was not bound to a settlement freeze as a precondition for the resumption of negotiations.
On Friday, Kerry assured the Palestinians that Israel would free some 350 prisoners gradually in the coming months. The prisoners would include some 100 men convicted of terrorist crimes committed before the Oslo interim peace accords were signed in 1993. Israel had balked at freeing these prisoners in the past because many were convicted in deadly attacks.
In contrast to the Likud and Jewish Home, which were expected to have issues with the government’s intended concessions to the Palestinians, other parties in Netanyahu’s coalition and in the opposition came out in staunch support of Kerry’s announcement Friday that talks were resuming.
Opposition leader Shelly Yachimovich said she was hopeful about the relaunching of direct talks. She called on Netanyahu to clearly announce his approval of Kerry’s initiative and express his willingness to achieve an agreement with the Palestinians.
But Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon (Likud) told reporters Saturday that Israel “must learn from past mistakes and not release terrorists with blood on their hands as a goodwill gesture or a prize.”
“I trust the prime minister, who knows that talking about a return to the ’67 lines is out of the question. Ripping thousands of Israelis from their homes, like we did in the disengagement from Gaza, is a wrong that must not be repeated,” said Danon, who is associated with the hawkish flank of the Likud.
At a stormy late-night meeting of their leadership Thursday, Palestinians had balked at dropping a main condition for talks with the Israelis. They demanded a guarantee that negotiations on borders between a Palestinian state and Israel would be based on the ceasefire line that held from 1949 until the 1967 war, when Israel captured the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and east Jerusalem. Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005.
Israel rejected preconditions for talks, and the split cast a pall of uncertainty over months of US mediation efforts.
Hoping to push Israelis and Palestinians toward talks, President Barack Obama asked Netanyahu to work with Kerry “to resume negotiations with Palestinians as soon as possible,” according to a statement released by the White House late Thursday.
Previous Israeli governments twice negotiated on the basis of the 1967 lines, but no peace accord was reached. Besides disagreeing over how much land to trade and where, the two sides hit logjams on other key issues, including dividing Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees.
Times of Israel staff and AP contributed to this report.