Israel’s senior negotiator with the Palestinians, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, refused on Saturday to go into the details of the US-brokered agreement to enter new talks with the Palestinians, but assured the public that there was no risk in restarting negotiations.
“Our agreement with the Palestinians and the Americans was that we would let [US Secretary of State John] 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, Israel’s hawkish defense minister Moshe Ya’alon said Saturday that “We had insisted on entering talks without preconditions, including the Palestinian’s 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. Alongside 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 had 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 [Prime Minister Benjamin] 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 his interview given to 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 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 branch 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 cease-fire 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 on the talks, and the split cast a cloud 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.