Just hours after Israel released 26 Palestinian terrorists in the middle of the night to crimp “victory” celebrations, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators met in total secrecy Wednesday evening in Jerusalem for talks the US hopes will yield a peace accord in nine months.
“The talks resumed,” Justice Minister Tzipi Livni’s spokeswoman, Mia Bengel, wrote on a Twitter post at around 7 p.m. “No photo opp. No statements. Why? To allow the teams to work together, and not think about the media waiting outside.”
The talks lasted for about five hours, and ended at about midnight. Sources who were briefed on the discussions characterized them as "serious." The sides agreed to meet again "soon."
Israel is being represented at the talks by Livni and Yitzhak Molcho, a confidante of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, while the Palestinians’ team includes chief PLO negotiator Saeb Erekat and senior negotiator Mohammed Shtayyeh.
US special envoy Martin Indyk did not initially take part in the discussions. He met with PA President Mahmoud Abbas Sunday and with Netanyahu on Wednesday.
One Israeli official, when asked whether Netanyahu met Livni before the talks, said that she constantly “comes and goes” at the Prime Minister’s Office.
The next round of talks is expected to be held next week – also under a total media blackout – in the West Bank.
While no agenda for the talks was released, US Secretary of State John Kerry indicated during a press conference in Brazil on Tuesday that it was crucial to first tackle the issues of security and borders. The reason, he said, was that once this issue was resolved, the settlements would no longer be a point of contention because it would be agreed where Israel could, and could not, build.
Despite the loud and angry protestations from the PA over the past three days regarding announcements on the eve of the talks concerning plans to build housing units in east Jerusalem and the major settlement blocs, Kerry said the move took neither the US nor Abbas by surprise.
Kerry said Netanyahu had been “completely upfront with me and with President Abbas that he would be announcing some additional building that would take place in places that will not affect the peace map, that will not have any impact on the capacity to have a peace agreement.”
What this meant, Kerry explained, was that the building would take place in the “so-called blocs in areas that many people make a presumption – obviously not some Palestinians or others – will be part of Israel in the future. [Netanyahu] has specifically agreed not to disturb what might be the potential for peace going forward.”
Kerry said the US viewed all settlements as “illegitimate” and that it would be better were these construction announcements not made.
But, he added, “there are realities within life in Israel that also have to be taken into account here going forward.”
Abbas, Kerry stated, “understood that coming into these talks.”
While the Palestinians were angry about the settlement plan announcements – warning until the last minute that they poisoned the atmosphere and could cause the talks to collapse – Israel was unhappy with the joyous reception that released Palestinian terrorists received at the hands of the PA in Ramallah. Fifteen of the newly freed prisoners were sent to the Gaza Strip, while 11 returned to their homes in the West Bank. Those who were sent to the West Bank were greeted by Abbas in Ramallah.
“It is troubling for many Israelis to see the welcome that people who have murdered innocent civilians have received,” Netanyahu spokesman Mark Regev said, pointing out that the ex-prisoners had stabbed, axed and committed gruesome crimes against innocent people.
“It is problematic and troubling when these sorts of murderers are put on a pedestal, called heroes, and presented to the public as positive role models,” Regev said. “I am afraid it says something about Palestinian political culture that the murderer of an old man, or of a child, is somehow a hero.”
In a related development, officials in the Prime Minister’s Office dismissed as “incorrect” reports that Israel would soon return to the PA as a good-will gesture the bodies of terrorists buried in Israel. The officials said that “at this time there is no intention to return bodies.”
Last year, Israel transferred to the Palestinians the bodies of 91 terrorists who had been buried in a cemetery for enemy fatalities near the Jordanian border. Seventy-nine of the bodies were transferred to the West Bank, and 12 to the Gaza Strip.