Israel is to release some Palestinian prisoners as part of efforts to restart peace talks, an Israeli Minister said on Saturday.
Yuval Steinitz, the Minister for Intelligence, International Relations and Strategic Affairs, told Israel Radio that the prisoners were “serious cases” but had already spent many years behind bars.
He did not, however, say how many of them would be freed, the Israel Times reported.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced in Amman on Friday that the Israelis and Palestinians had agreed to enter peace talks starting next week in Washington.
In early comments on the talks, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu greeted the plans and said they were “an essential strategic interest for Israel,” the newspaper Haaretz quoted him as saying on Saturday.
He said the negotiations are important not only to end the conflict with the Palestinians but also in light of the nuclear threat from Iran and the civil war in neighbouring Syria, the Israeli leader said.
“I have in mind a number of objectives, preventing the creation of a bi-national state between the Jordan River and the sea, which will endanger the future of the Jewish State, and preventing the creation of another Iranian-backed terrorist state within Israel’s borders, which could no less endanger us,” Mr. Netanyahu said.
Mr. Steinitz emphasised that Israel was not bound to a freeze on settlement activities. “There is no chance that we will agree to enter into negotiations that begin by defining our territorial borders and possible concessions, or a construction freeze,” he was quoted as saying.
In Cairo, Egypt’s new Foreign Minister, Nabil Fahmy, called on Israel to take “confidence-building measures” ahead of next week’s negotiations.
“Egypt will continue to give a top priority to the Palestinian cause and support the Palestinian people’s right to have an independent state,” said Mr. Fahmy, a former ambassador to Washington.
Egypt was the first Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israel in 1979. Jordan followed in 1984.
Meanwhile, several Palestinian groups on Saturday said they opposed the resumption of direct peace talks with Israel after more than two years.
The Islamist movement Hamas that rules the Gaza Strip said the resumption of direct peace talks with Israel “is very dangerous.” Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ decision to resume the talks with Israel “contradicts the national consensus that the Palestinians agreed upon.” He added: “Resuming the talks only serves the occupation and gives it a cover for its settlement expansion.” Mr. Kerry said Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat and Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni are set to open the discussions in the U.S., but he refused to divulge details on the negotiation framework.
He praised Mr. Abbas and Mr. Netanyahu for making “courageous choices” to return to the negotiation table.
The breakthrough came on Mr. Kerry’s sixth official visit this year to West Asia, and the second in less than a month.
Jamil Mezher, spokesman of the left-wing Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, said the move “causes severe harm to the Palestinian cause.” He added that “twenty years of absurd negotiations with Israel achieved a big zero, and only helped Israel to execute its plans of expansion.” Mustafa Barghouti, chairman of the Palestinian Initiative Party, said the talks will fail “because the current Israeli government is a government of settlers and it would never recognise the legal Palestinian right of independence, of ending the occupation and of self-determination.”
AP reports from Jerusalem:
1967 borders basis for talks, say Palestinians
Meanwhile, two senior Palestinian officials said on Saturday that Mr. Abbas had agreed to resume peace talks with Israel only after Mr. Kerry gave him a letter guaranteeing that the basis of the negotiations will be Israel’s pre-1967 borders,.
A Western official, however, later denied that the 1967 lines would be the basis of negotiations.
The Palestinian officials, both of whom are close to the Palestinian leader and privy to internal discussions, said the U.S. letter also stipulated that both sides are to refrain from taking any steps that would jeopardize the outcome of the talks. Israel is not to issue new tenders for Jewish settlements in the West Bank, while the Palestinians are not to pursue diplomatic action against Israel at any international organisations, the officials said on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to brief the media.
“The talks with Kerry were about to collapse, and the letter came as a lifeline in the last-minute bargaining,” one of the Palestinian officials said.
U.S. officials have said in the past that Kerry would reiterate standing American positions on the goals for renewed talks, including that a Palestinian state should be negotiated on the basis of Israel’s borders before the 1967 Mideast war, when Israel captured the Gaza Strip, West Bank and east Jerusalem.
There was no immediate comment from the State Department, though a Western official denied the Palestinian officials’ claim about the ‘67 borders.
“There are no terms of reference or any other agreements that the ‘67 lines will be the basis for negotiations,” the official said. The official spoke on condition of anonymity as the official had no authorization to speak to the media.