Israel is set to release a fist group of 26 long-serving Palestinian prisoners on August 13, the Palestinian Authority’s chief negotiator Saeb Erekat told the Palestinians news agency Ma’an on Saturday.
Erekat also confirmed that Israel has agreed to release 104 Palestinian prisoners who have been serving sentences since before the 1993 Oslo Accords in four phases as the new peace talks progress.
Justice Minister and chief negotiator Tzipi Livni (Hatnua) had told Channel 10 Friday that the next round of talks between Israel and the Palestinians would be held in Israel in the second week of August, and that some Palestinian prisoners would be freed by then.
Israel Radio reported Saturday morning that the talks are due to recommence on August 14.
The Israeli government on Sunday established a ministerial committee to handle the prisoner releases. The releases will be individually scrutinized, and leave given for opponents to appeal the releases to the Israeli Supreme Court, which is deemed unlikely to intervene.
Former foreign minister Avigdor Liberman (Yisrael Beytenu), for his part, told Channel 10 on Saturday that “there is no chance” of the new talks achieving an accord, “and anybody with a brain knows it.”
Livni said she believed the Palestinians were serious about the process, and that both sides ought to have a good sense already of “roughly how the talks should end.” She said the sides had agreed on alternating venues for the talks — which resumed in Washington on Monday-Tuesday after a three-year hiatus — as they progress over coming months.
“We and the Palestinians both determined that the first meetings would be held once in Israel and once in the Palestinian Authority … we want to do it directly (and close to home). The next meeting will be in the second week of August in Israel,” she said.
“The release [of the first group of Palestinian prisoners] will take place between now and the second week of August,” she added.
“All the relevant sides have a vested interest in an agreement. If [the talks] are serious and we’re at the eighth month and we find that we need more time, then of course we will carry on talking. If after a month, we see it’s not serious, then why carry on talking for the next eight?
“It is my impression that the Palestinians are serious — this is a test for them… Anybody who enters the [negotiating] room knows roughly how the talks should end.” said Livni.
Last week, Israel approved the phased release of the 104 Palestinian prisoners in order to facilitate the resumption of peace talks, a move that drew criticism from those on the right of the political spectrum, many of whom see the freeing of convicted murderers and terrorists as a price too high to pay for a return to the talks. Others regard it as a necessary evil, meeting a Palestinian demand to enable the resumption of negotiations.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that approving the releases was a deeply painful decision, but one that served the wider interests of the state.
The parties held their first talks in three years in Washington last week, brokered by US Secretary of State John Kerry who traveled to the region no fewer than six times in recent months to get the sides to agree to a renewal of talks.
On Thursday, President Barack Obama called Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to praise both leaders for their roles in the resumption of talks. He also reportedly urged them to “move fast” and make “speedy progress” toward a permanent accord.
The US has indicated that it intends to remain involved and follow developments very closely. Last week, Kerry announced the appointment of former ambassador Martin Indyk to serve as US envoy for Mideast peace and the top American negotiator for the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
Ron Friedman contributed to this report.