Steinitz: Israel to free Palestinian prisoners in peace talks renewal

International relations minister says some "heavyweight" prisoners to be freed in bid to resume talks.

Yuval Steinitz 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Yuval Steinitz 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
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."
Kerry 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."