Israeli-Palestinian Talks Resume After Prisoner Release

Israelis and Palestinians held peace talks late yesterday in Jerusalem, two weeks after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry brought the sides together in Washington following a three-year hiatus in negotiations.

Israeli and Palestinian negotiators met directly yesterday while Martin Indyk, the U.S. special envoy, was available as a facilitator, Jen Psaki, a State Department spokeswoman, told reporters in Washington. The department was maintaining a policy of not commenting on the substance of the discussions, Psaki said.

The meeting broke about midnight local time after four hours, and there was no announcement regarding when the next discussion, scheduled to take place in the West Bank city of Jericho, will be held.

“Both parties have described the meeting as a long and serious one,” Mia Bengel, spokeswoman for Israeli Justice Minister and chief negotiator Tzipi Livni, said in a Twitter post early today.

The talks were convened after Israel freed 26 Palestinian prisoners early yesterday. The prisoners, most convicted of killing Israelis, were delivered by bus to border crossings into the West Bank and Gaza Strip and released into Palestinian territory.

Hero’s Welcome

“Releasing the prisoners was a choice between a bad option and a worse one,” Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said yesterday. “There were several strategic considerations behind this, which may become evident in the future,” he said, according to Army Radio.

The prisoners received a hero’s welcome from Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who pledged not to rest until “all prisoners are freed.”

“We congratulate ourselves, our people, our brothers who were freed from the Israeli prisons to witness freedom today,” Abbas said at his headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah, where thousands had gathered, some carrying Palestinian flags and pictures of their loved ones. “We tell them the rest are following you.”

The freed prisoners are the first among 104 that Israel has agreed to release in four rounds, in return for a Palestinian commitment to engage in negotiations for at least nine months.

Settlement Plans

The negotiations have been clouded by Israel’s announcement in the past week that it plans to build almost 1,200 additional homes in east Jerusalem and the West Bank on land the Palestinians claim for a future state. The last round of peace talks stalled in 2010 when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declined to extend a settlement moratorium.

Kerry said on Aug. 13 that he had spoken with Netanyahu about the settlement plans that brought criticism from Palestinian leaders.

“We had a very frank and open, direct discussion about this question of settlements,” Kerry told reporters in Brasilia during a visit to Brazil’s capital. The new building plans are for areas that “many people have the perception” will be part of Israel after a negotiated treaty setting boundaries for a Palestinian state, Kerry said.

Palestinian official Yasser Abed Rabbo said yesterday on Voice of Palestine radio that “the U.S. has informed us that it will exert all the necessary pressure on Israel in order to not expand settlements.”

Construction ‘Unhelpful’

Palestinians say Israeli construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem violates the Fourth Geneva Convention. Israel says the settlements don’t fall under the convention because the territory wasn’t recognized as belonging to anyone before the 1967 war, in which Israel prevailed against Arab forces, and therefore isn’t occupied.

Israeli Housing Minister Uri Ariel said Aug. 11 that the government would solicit bids for construction projects in the two territories, which the Palestinians see as the core of a future state. “No country in the world takes orders from other countries about where it can and cannot build,” Ariel said.

Israeli Finance Minister Yair Lapid said the construction plans were “unhelpful” to peace efforts, highlighting the divisions in Netanyahu’s coalition over the issue.

Palestinians perceive the new settlement construction as a sign of bad faith. “By announcing new bids every day and every week, Israel is out to destroy the negotiations before they start and destroy the principle of the two-state solution,” chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said.

Israel’s Goal

Israeli negotiator Livni said yesterday her country was entering into the talks with the goal of “preserving its values as both a Jewish and democratic state,” according to an e-mailed statement from her office.

Israel captured east Jerusalem and the West Bank from the Jordanians in the 1967 war, then annexed east Jerusalem in a move that’s not internationally recognized. The U.S., United Nations and European Union consider settlement construction an obstacle to peace, and the Palestinians refused for three years to negotiate while the building went on.

Abbas scored a domestic victory in the run-up to the new round of talks by securing the release of some of the thousands of prisoners Israel holds, most for at least 20 years. Because many Palestinian families have had a relative in an Israeli prison at some point, the release of inmates is a priority for Palestinian leaders.

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