Netanyahu Says Talks Renewal Is in Israel’s Strategic Interest

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the deal to renew peace talks with the Palestinians brokered by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was of “vital strategic interest” to his country.

“I view the resumption of the diplomatic process at this time as a vital strategic interest of the State of Israel,” Netanyahu said yesterday by text message in his first comments on the agreement announced Friday. “It is important in and of itself in order to try and bring about the conclusion of the conflict between us and the Palestinians, and it is important in light of the strategic challenges that are before us, mainly from Iran and Syria.”

While the agreement is “still in the process of being formalized,” Kerry said July 19, the two sides will seek to set a meeting in Washington within the next week or so to revive negotiations that broke off in September 2010.

Kerry made the announcement in Amman, Jordan, after returning from a meeting in the West Bank city of Ramallah with chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Kerry declined to provide details of the agreement, and gave no indication that either the Israelis or the Palestinians had budged from core positions. Speculation about its terms is “conjecture” because “the people who know the facts are not talking about them,” he said.

Palestinian Prisoners

Netanyahu hasn’t agreed to Palestinian demands to suspend construction in West Bank settlements or declare that the final settlement on borders will be based on Israel’s pre-1967 lines, according to Israeli Minister of International Relations Yuval Steinitz. The Palestinians have committed to at least nine months of negotiation, during which they will not undertake punitive diplomatic actions against Israel in the international arena, he said in an interview on Israel Radio.

Steinitz said his government had agreed as part of the deal to free a number of long-serving “heavyweight” Palestinian security prisoners who had committed serious offenses.

Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon, a member of Netanyahu’s own Likud party, said he hopes the government has learned “from previous mistakes regarding the release of prisoners with blood on their hands. These murderers must not be released as an ’act of good will’ or as a prize for returning to the negotiating table.”

Political Cost

Getting cabinet approval for the prisoner releases “will be very difficult for Netanyahu, especially given that the families of victims of terror attacks will strongly object and also mount a legal challenge,” said Gerald Steinberg, political science professor at Bar Ilan University outside Tel Aviv. “At the end of the day he may get approval, but it will cost him politically,” Steinberg said in a phone interview.

Hani al-Masri, director of the Badael Palestine Media, Research and Studies Center in Ramallah, said Palestinian leaders will face challenges if they enter into talks without Israeli concessions.

“The resumption of the peace negotiations with Israel amid Israeli obstinacy is political suicide,” al-Masri said in an interview.

Abbas’s spokesman, Nabil Abu Rudeina, said in a statement that “there was progress made, but certain details still need to be worked out.”

“If all goes well,” Rudeina said, Kerry will send invitations “in the next few days” to start discussions in Washington.

Kerry said talks would be attended by Erekat, Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Netanyahu’s negotiator Yitzhak Molcho.

The Right Thing

“I’m sure with all my heart that it is the right thing to do for our future, our security, for the economy and Israel’s values,” Livni said in a posting on Facebook Inc.’s social networking website. “In the negotiating room, we will safeguard the national interests and security of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. To this I am committed.”

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon welcomed the announcement, and called on “both sides to show leadership, courage, and responsibility to sustain this effort towards achieving the two-state vision,” according to a statement posted on the UN’s website.

The Hamas Islamist movement that rules the Gaza Strip condemned the move, calling it “very dangerous.” Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said in an e-mailed statement the agreement “contradicts the national consensus that the Palestinians agreed upon.”

Hamas Opposition

“Resuming the talks only serves the occupation and gives it a cover for its settlement expansion,” Hamas said.

Hamas, considered a terrorist organization by Israel, the U.S. and European Union, ousted Abbas’s forces from Gaza in 2007, a year after winning parliamentary elections.

Dennis Ross, who was Middle East peace envoy under President Bill Clinton, said the key to further progress will be an environment in which both sides are willing to “stay at the table and negotiate in good faith.”

“There had to be some understandings” exchanged during months of Kerry’s shuttle diplomacy for the two sides to even agree to move toward a resumption of talks, Ross said in a telephone interview.

Negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians broke down three years ago after Netanyahu declined to extend and expand a 10-month building freeze on new construction in West Bank settlements.

Israeli Finance Minister Yair Lapid, whose Yesh Atid party is the second-biggest faction in the government, welcomed the agreement.

“It is incumbent on us to conduct these negotiations like all negotiations in the Middle East -- with toughness, with caution,” Lapid said in a statement posted yesterday on his Facebook page. “Our marriage with the Palestinians is not a happy one, but we are seeking a fair divorce.”

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