PM: Resumption of peace process a vital strategic interest for Israel

Israeli officials say some 80 prisoners will be freed in stages, insist J'lem hasn't agreed to pre-1967 lines as baseline of talks.

Kerry and Netanyahu meeting 370 (photo credit: Matty Stern/US Embassy Tel Aviv)
Kerry and Netanyahu meeting 370
(photo credit: Matty Stern/US Embassy Tel Aviv)
Resuming negotiations now with the Palestinian Authority is a vital Israeli strategic interest, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said on Saturday night, after US Secretary of State John Kerry announced in Amman the previous night the resumption of talks.
The resumption of talks is important “on its own” in order to bring about an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the prime minister said in a statement issued by his office.
“And it is important in light of the challenges we face, especially from Iran and Syria.”
Netanyahu said that he will be guided by two central aims in conducting the negotiations: thwarting the creation of a bi-national state from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River, and preventing the establishment of an additional Iranian-backed terrorist state on Israel’s borders.
“As prime minister of Israel, I am committed, first and foremost, to the security of the citizens of Israel and I will strongly uphold the security demands of the State of Israel as well as its vital interests,” he said.
Kerry, who has traveled to the region six times since March and invested an enormous amount of time and energy on this issue, announced that the talks would resume “within the next week or so” in Washington.
The announcement came at the end of a dramatic day in which, following the PLO’s apparent rejection of a return to the talks on Thursday night, Kerry met again with Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat in Amman on Friday, and then flew to meet PA President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah. He spoke by phone throughout the day with Netanyahu.
Kerry, in a statement short on details, said that “we have reached an agreement that establishes a basis for resuming direct final-status negotiations.”
This would be the first such negotiations since Netanyahu and Abbas held talks for less than a month in the fall of 2010.
Kerry said the agreement to restart the talks is “still in the process of being formalized,” and any details that appear in the media are merely “conjecture.”
He said that if “all goes well,” Erekat, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who is in charge of negotiations with the Palestinians, and Netanyahu’s personal envoy to the talks, Yitzhak Molcho, will travel to Washington to begin the talks.
“We know that the challenges require some very tough choices in the days ahead,” Kerry said. “Today, however, I am hopeful. I’m hopeful because of the courageous leadership shown by President Abbas and Prime Minister Netanyahu. Both of them have chosen to make difficult choices here, and both of them were instrumental in pushing in this direction.”
Kerry did not read out terms of reference for the resumption of talks, but what is expected to emerge in the coming days is a US statement on the goals of the talks that will refer to the 1967 lines with mutually agreed upon land swaps, and recognition of Israel as a Jewish state.
This type of wording is expected to allow both Israel to say that it did not agree to using the pre-1967 lines as the baseline of talks, and the Palestinians to say they did not recognize Israel as a Jewish state, something that implies forgoing a “right of return” to Israel of Palestinian refugees and their descendants.
Israeli officials denied Palestinian claims that Netanyahu had agreed to a non-declared settlement freeze, and the release of Palestinian prisoners before the talks began.
“The talks are taking place without preconditions,” one Israeli official said. “There is no Israeli commitment of making a statement that the basis for the talks will be the 1967 lines.
Nor is there a freeze on building in Judea and Samaria. And there will not be a release of prisoners before the beginning of talks.”
Israeli officials said that some 80 prisoners will be released in stages during the negotiations, and on the condition that the Palestinians do not take unilateral steps in the UN. The officials said these prisoners have been in jail between 20 and 28 years, and some of them are already up for release soon. A group of the prisoners were arrested as minors, the officials said, and have spent the majority of their lives behind bars.
The officials stressed that no Israeli Arabs would be released.
International Relations Minister Yuval Steinitz, meanwhile, told Israel Radio that some “heavyweight prisoners” will be released.
The Palestinians have demanded the release of some 103 security prisoners incarcerated for attacks carried out before the 1993 Oslo Accords.
Steinitz said that the Palestinians had agreed to stop efforts to gain UN statehood recognition during this period.
He said the talks would continue at least nine months.
The talks are expected to be conducted in such a way that the Israeli and Palestinian teams will come to an understanding on the core issues, which will then be brought to Netanyahu and Abbas for their approval. Israeli official said that any final agreement will be brought to the country in the form of a referendum.
Livni issued a statement with rare praise for Netanyahu, saying she had “much respect for our prime minister for making the decisions representing Israel’s important interests.”
She said that around the negotiating table “we will maintain the national and security interests of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.”
She termed the restart of negotiations as an end to “four years of political stagnation.”
The restarting of negotiations was greeted by applause from the international community, including UN Secretary- General Ban Ki-Moon, who called on the sides to show “courage and responsibility” moving forward.
Others to issue words of praise were Quartet envoy Tony Blair, who played a vital role in pushing the process forward, and the foreign ministers of Germany and Britain.
In the US, Congress reacted to Kerry’s policy announcement with caution and praise, hopeful that the latest development might bring positive news out of the region.
“Peace between Israel and the Palestinians is a vital US national security concern. It can only happen through face-to-face direct negotiations, and two states for two people living side by side in peace and security remains the only formula,” said Sen. Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.Michael Wilner in Washington contributed to this report.