A leading minister confirmed Saturday that Israel would release Palestinian prisoners in exchange for the renewal of peace talks, but said that the government is not bound to a settlement freeze as a precondition for the resumption of negotiations.
Yuval Steinitz, who serves as minister for intelligence, international relations and strategic affairs, made the comments during an interview with Israel Radio one day after US Secretary of State John Kerry announced that Israel and the Palestinians agreed to resume negotiations without preconditions, after a three-year breakdown in direct talks.
Steinitz said that a number of the Palestinian prisoners to be released were “serious” cases, but noted that a large portion of them had already served many years. He didn’t specify how many prisoners Israel would release.
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.
Steinitz stressed, however, that the resumption of talks didn’t mean Israel was bound to a settlement freeze — one of the three core demands the Palestinians had been placing on Israel — and also said that the Palestinians had agreed not to pursue action against Israel in the international arena, such as at the United Nations, for the duration of the negotiations.
“There is no chance that we [Israel] will agree to enter into negotiations that begin by defining our territorial borders and possible concessions, or a construction freeze,” he said.
Steinitz said the Palestinians had pledged to negotiate seriously for at least nine months, but noted that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s ostensible reluctance to enter into talks made him “skeptical” of the Palestinians’ intention to deliver meaningful concessions.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said Friday it would not immediately comment on Kerry’s announcement.
In a possible twist, a PLO official told Israel Radio that chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat won’t leave for negotiations in Washington, DC, which could reportedly begin within a few weeks, until the Palestinians receive a firm commitment from the secretary about their three demands: negotiations with Israel for a Palestinian state on the basis of the pre-1967 lines, the release of pre-Oslo Palestinian prisoners, and a settlement building freeze. Kerry had said Erekat, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Netanyahu’s envoy Isaac Molho would meet in Washington within the next week or so to resume negotiations.
However, at a stormy late-night meeting of their leadership Thursday, the Palestinians did not bring up their often-repeated demand that Israel stop building in in the West Bank and East Jerusalem before talks could resume. One official said that if Israel accepts the pre-1967 lines as a basis, that would make most of the settlements illegitimate in any case.
Meanwhile, Finance Minister Yair Lapid wrote on his Facebook page Saturday that his party, Yesh Atid, had fulfilled its promise to jumpstart peace talks.
“To the left, we say: Israel should conduct tough negotiations [with the Palestinians]. We aren’t looking for a happy marriage but for a fair divorce,” he stated. “And to the right, we say: Let’s separate from the Palestinians, because a bi-national state is the end of Zionism.”
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius on Saturday welcomed the announced resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, praising the two parties for ending the political deadlock. Fabius said Kerry had briefed him on the ongoing negotiations and that he had congratulated the secretary on his efforts.
“Israel and the Palestinian Authority have demonstrated responsibility, and France encourages them to continue their dialogue and create a climate that will enable a peace agreement,” Fabius said in a statement.
Kerry, speaking at a press conference in Amman Friday, said that “We have reached an agreement that establishes a basis for resuming negotiations. This is a significant and welcome step forward.
“We know that challenges lay ahead. Both sides understand that the difficult road ahead is worth traveling. They have courageously recognized that in order to live side by side, they must begin by sitting together in direct talks,” he said. “I look forward to seeing my friends from this region in Washington next week” or shortly after, he added.
Kerry was back in Amman Friday evening after meeting earlier with Abbas in Ramallah, where he was a guest at the Iftar meal with the Palestinian leader.
“Mr. President, you should look happy,” a cheerful-looking Kerry said to Abbas in front of reporters as they sat before the closed-door talks began.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon commended Kerry’s efforts and the decision by the parties to return to the negotiating table, pledged UN support, and called on both sides “to show leadership, courage, and responsibility to sustain this effort towards achieving the two-state vision,” UN spokesman Martin Nesirky said.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton welcomed the announcement, saying Netanyahu and Abbas “demonstrated courage in reaching this point.”
“Of course there are difficult negotiations ahead and difficult decisions to take. The European Union will make every effort to ensure that negotiations succeed,” Ashton said.
A Palestinian official said Kerry has proposed holding talks for six to nine months focusing on the key issues of borders and security arrangements. He claimed Kerry would endorse the pre-1967 lines as the starting point of negotiations.
There was no formal confirmation of these elements of the Kerry framework.
The Israeli and Palestinian teams have been using verbal commitments to convey their stipulations rather than writing what they agree to, an unnamed member of Abbas’s Fatah party told Palestinian media Saturday.
Kerry had stepped up his drive Friday to get Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table, facing Palestinian reluctance over his formula for resuming negotiations.
Kerry held more than 90 minutes of talks Friday morning with chief Palestinian negotiator Erekat, a US official said.
After their late-night meeting Thursday, Palestinians had balked at dropping their demand 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.
Still, a Palestinian official had told The Times of Israel late Thursday that the Palestinians would come back to the talks if the US invitation to the negotiations specified that the goal was a Palestinian state based on the pre-1967 lines.
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.
Netanyahu has given lukewarm endorsement to the idea of a Palestinian state but has not delineated his vision of boundaries, while demanding that the Palestinian recognize Israel as the Jewish state. Palestinians reject that, concerned that it would undermine their claims that millions of refugees and their descendants have the right to return to their original homes, lost in the 1948-49 war surrounding Israel’s creation. Israel has rejected that claim outright.
An Arab League decision Wednesday to endorse Kerry’s proposal raised speculation that the Palestinians may agree. Abbas traditionally has sought the blessing of his Arab brethren before making any major diplomatic initiative.
Ahmed Majdalani, a Palestinian leader, said Kerry envisaged six to nine months of talks focused on border and security issues.
He said Kerry would endorse the 1967 lines as the starting point of negotiations. It was not clear whether Israel would accept any reference to the 1967 lines.
Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist group that has run the Gaza Strip since it ousted Abbas’s Fatah party after the 2006 elections, rejected Kerry’s announcement, saying it “considers the Palestinian Authority’s return to negotiations with the occupation to be at odds with the national consensus.” Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri told AFP that Abbas had no right to negotiate on the Palestinian people’s behalf.
AP contributed to this report.