The long-awaited peace talks between Israel and Palestine are set to restart on Monday evening, after the Israeli government agreed Sunday to set 104 Palestinian prisoners free, the White House has confirmed.
The release of Palestinian inmates has been one of the major roadblocks to the peace talks that are expected to follow months of US shuttle diplomacy, after coming to a sudden halt in 2010.
On Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu won the support of his divided Cabinet to free jailed Palestinians, calling the issue “painful for the entire nation,” since many Palestinian inmates behind Israeli bars have been convicted of allegedly killing Israelis.
The vote among Israeli ministers split 13 to 7, with two abstentions. The Cabinet also approved Netanyahu’s call for a national referendum that would allow voters to approve or reject any peace deal he makes.
The list of prisoners who may soon be released includes insurgents who threw firebombs, stabbed and shot civilians, and ambushed border guards, police officers, security agents and soldiers. All of them have been in prison for at least two decades, with some were serving life sentences.
These prisoners are largely considered terrorists by the Israeli public, while Palestinians see them as freedom fighters struggling to reclaim their homeland and oust the occupiers.
Earlier, Palestinian Authority’s President Mahmoud Abbas and his leadership refused to return to the negotiating table without their release.
More prisoners would be freed as the peace talks go on, though the Israeli prime minister warned that “every Palestinian provocation will result in halting of the prisoner-release process.”
Israeli-Palestinian peace talks to begin in Washington
Israeli-Palestinian peace talks will restart in Washington on Monday evening, US State Department said Sunday. The long-anticipated Mid-East dialogue follows months of frenetic shuttle diplomacy by US Secretary of State John Kerry, after having been stalled for almost three years.
“Today [ US Secretary of State John] Kerry spoke with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu and personally extended an invitation to send senior negotiating teams to Washington to formally resume direct final status negotiations,” US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement.
“Initial meetings are planned for the evening of Monday July 29 and Tuesday July 30,” she added.
Two officials from each side of the aisle, Israeli’s Tzipi Livni and Yitzhak Molcho and the Palestinians’ Saeb Erekat and Mohammed Ishtyeh, are expected to come to Washington for initial meetings, slated for late Monday and Tuesday, Jen Psaki said in a statement.
US Secretary of State John Kerry has hugely contributed to the talks, making six trips to the Middle East in the last four months. In telephone talks with the negotiating leaderships, he also extended the invitations to Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority’s Mahmoud
“Both leaders have demonstrated a willingness to make difficult decisions that have been instrumental in getting to this point. We are grateful for their leadership,” Mr. Kerry told the media.
Psaki suggested the round of talks in Washington this week would be to chart a path forward, rather than to leap directly into the thorny issues that need to be resolved. These include borders, the fate of Palestinian refugees, the future of Israeli settlements on the West Bank and the status of Jerusalem.
“They will serve as an opportunity to develop a procedural work plan for how the parties can proceed with the negotiations in the coming months,” she said.
The Palestinian news agency, WAFA, quoted Abu Rdaineh as saying that the first meeting would aim to develop a procedural working plan for both sides to enable them to advance in talks in the coming months.
Major sticking points include the future of Israeli settlements on the West Bank, the status of Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees.The last direct talks in September 2010 were crippled by the issue of settlement-building, which is considered illegal under international law, although Israel disputes this.
Israel government adopts peace referendum bill
The Israeli government approved a bill on Sunday to submit any peace treaty with the Palestinians to a referendum, a statement from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said.
“Any agreement which may be reached in negotiations will be put to a referendum,” it quoted him as saying.
“It is important that on such historic decisions every citizen should vote directly on an issue deciding the country’s future.”
A Palestinian official said on Saturday that a US-brokered renewal of peace talks, stalled since September 2010, would open in Washington on Tuesday.
There has so far been no official confirmation.A cabinet briefing paper said the government saw the referendum bill as “urgent and important” and said it would be asking parliament to fast-track its passage into law.
Israeli media said that it could go before the house for a first reading this week.
If adopted, a referendum would be a final endorsement of a treaty after ratification by the government and parliament.
The draft is seen as a gesture to rightwing ministers apprehensive of concessions that could be demanded of Israel in the talks.
It would oblige a referendum in cases where territory over which Israel claims sovereignty is ceded in a peace agreement or by a cabinet decision.
That would include any part of mainly-Arab east Jerusalem, which Israel occupied in the 1967 Six-Day War and later annexed in a move never recognised by the international community.
The Palestinians claim east Jerusalem for the capital of their state. Israel rules out ceding sovereignty over any part of what it calls its “eternal and indivisible capital.”
Netanyahu seeks cabinet approval for release of 104 Palestinians
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was seeking cabinet approval on Sunday for a contentious release of 104 veteran Palestinian and Israeli-Arab prisoners, to coincide with the resumption of peace talks.
The meeting was scheduled to begin at 0700 GMT but started over an hour late, Israeli media said, as Netanyahu sought to win over opponents within his own rightwing Likud party.
While the names of the prisoners have yet to be officially published, or even revealed to ministers, they reportedly include militants convicted of killing Israeli women and children or Palestinians suspected of collaborating with Israel.
An unofficial list published by Almagor, a group representing Israeli victims of Palestinian attacks, said that candidates for release also included those jailed for acts such as the killing of a creditor, murder during car theft and a man convicted of strangling his wife whom he suspected of adultery.
The planned releases have brought protests from Israeli victims’ families and from Netanyahu’s hardline coalition partners.
Israeli media reported on Sunday that the far-right Jewish Home party intends to vote against the plan, while the equally hardline Yisrael Beitenu had given its ministers a free vote.
Inside the Likud, deputy defence minister Danny Danon urged the party’s ministers to vote “no”.
Commentators nevertheless expected Netanyahu to win the vote, albeit by a narrow margin.
A Palestinian official told AFP on Saturday that the US-brokered renewal of peace talks, stalled since September 2010, would open in Washington on Tuesday.
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