Israel has agreed to a long-standing Palestinian demand to release
Palestinian prisoners in order to resume peace talks, but will not yield
on other central issues, International Relations Minister Yuval
Steinitz said on Saturday.
US Secretary of State John Kerry announced Friday that Israel and the Palestinians have laid the groundwork
for renewed direct peace talks, some three years after the previous
attempt at negotiations fell apart.
"There will be some release
of prisoners," Steinitz told Israel Radio. "I don't want to give
numbers but there will be heavyweight prisoners who have been in jail
for dozens of years," he said. The release would be carried out in phases, he added.
Palestinians have long demanded that Israel free prisoners held since before 1993, when the two sides signed the Oslo Accords - a interim deal intended to lead to an independent state the Palestinians seek in east Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
"In all meetings held by President Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas) with minister Kerry and others, the Palestinian demand to release the prisoners topped the agenda," said Abbas's spokesman, Nabil Abu Rdaineh. "Freeing prisoners is a Palestinian priority that should precede any agreement."
There are about 100 pre-Oslo prisoners in Israeli jails, according to the Palestinian Prisoners Club, a Palestinian body that looks after the interests of inmates and their families.
Steinitz indicated that some of those who would be released had been convicted of violent crimes against Israelis.
"It will not be simple, but we will make that gesture," he said.
Steinitz said that Israel did not
acquiesce to freeze settlement construction or base the negotiations on
the pre-1967 borders as part of the agreement to return to negotiations.
"There is no chance that we will agree to enter any
negotiations that begins with defining territorial borders or
concessions by Israel, nor a construction freeze."
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has insisted that he would not agree
to these Palestinian demands as a pre-condition to returning to the
negotiating table, and Steinitz praised him for sticking to his
principles despite pressure.
The Likud minister told Israel Radio
that the Palestinians committed to enter talks that would continue at
least nine months and the PA agreed to cease unilateral efforts to gain
statehood at the UN during this period.
Steinitz said that
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas had reluctantly agreed to
resume negotiations. He posited that Abbas's behavior and his political
position among Palestinians raise doubts about his ability to make the
concessions necessary to completing a long-term peace agreement.
Senior PLO official Wasel Abu
Youssef said of Kerry's initiative, "The announcement today did not mean the return to
negotiations. It meant efforts would continue to secure the achievement
of Palestinian demands ... Israel must recognize the 1967 borders."
said on Friday that the deal between Israel and the Palestinians was
still being "formalized" and he would therefore not discuss it in
detail, but that negotiators for both sides could begin talks in
Washington "within the next week or so."