Israel: Palestinian prisoners to be freed in talks

Jul 20, 2013, 9:55 AM EDT
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry steps out of a vehicle as he prepares to depart from a meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Friday, July 19, 2013 in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
(AP Photo/Mandel Ngan, Pool)

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel has agreed to release some "hardcore" Palestinian prisoners as part of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's efforts to restart Mideast peace talks, but it will not meet other longstanding Palestinian demands before negotiations resume, an Israeli official said Saturday.

The comments from Yuval Steinitz, Israel's intelligence and strategic affairs minister, were the first from a senior Israeli official since Kerry announced late Friday that the Israelis and Palestinians will meet soon in Washington to work out the final details on an agreement to relaunch talks that collapsed in 2008.

Kerry's announcement came after last-minute meetings with Palestinian officials at the end of a day in which he shuttled between the Jordanian capital and the West Bank. He did not offer details, saying that the deal is "still in the process of being formalized."

Speaking to Israel Radio on Saturday, Steinitz said that as a step toward resuming those talks Israel has agreed to release "hardcore prisoners," including "those that have been sitting in jail for dozens of years." He did not say how many would be freed, adding only that they would be released in phases.

In Israeli parlance, term "hardcore" refers to prisoners implicated in deadly attacks. Their release has been a long-standing Palestinian demand.

The fate of the prisoners is extremely sensitive in Palestinian society, where after decades of fighting Israel, many families have had a member imprisoned. The Palestinians are held on a range of charges, from rock throwing to deadly assaults like shooting attacks or bombings targeting Israeli soldiers and civilians. The Palestinians mostly view the prisoners as heroes while Israelis tend to see them as terrorists.

Steinitz said that other Palestinian demands __ such as a freeze on settlement building and defining the 1967 lines as borders ahead of the negotiations __ will not be met.

The basis of the negotiations has been a major impediment to resuming talks. On Thursday evening, the Palestinian leadership balked at dropping a main condition: They demand a guarantee that negotiations on borders between a Palestinian state and Israel would be based on the cease-fire line that held from 1949 until the 1967 war, when Israel captured the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem.

Israel rejects preconditions on the talks.

Kerry's announcement late Friday suggested that the question had been resolved, although Kerry offered no details and said the "best way to give these negotiations a chance is to keep them private."

Final status negotiations aim to reach a deal on the core issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including borders, the fate of Palestinian refugees and security arrangements. Talks ground to a halt five years ago, and previous efforts to revive them have stalled, particularly over Palestinian demands that Israel announce a freeze in construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, which they claim as part of a future state along with Gaza. Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005.

In Gaza, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said his group rejects Kerry's announcement, saying it does not recognize Abbas' "legitimacy to negotiate" on their behalf.

Palestinian official Ahmed Majdalani said on Friday that Kerry had assured the Palestinians that Israel would free some 350 prisoners gradually in the coming months. The prisoners would include some 100 men that Israel convicted of crimes committed before interim peace accords were signed in 1993.

Majdalani also said Kerry would endorse the 1967 lines as the starting point of negotiations.

Steinitz said Saturday that it was agreed that there would be a timetable of at least nine months for the talks to prevent them from collapsing along the way. He also said the Palestinians agreed to refrain from taking action against Israel at the United Nations while the talks are taking place.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who did not meet with Kerry during the American diplomat's trip this week, has not spoken publicly about the step toward relaunching talks.

Palestinian officials refused to comment on Steinmitz's remarks Saturday. They said Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was privy to all the details.

Abbas, who met with Kerry in the West Bank town of Ramallah on Friday, said in a statement after Kerry's announcement that "lengthy meetings and conversations between Abbas and Kerry have resulted in the Palestinians accepting the resumption of talks." Abbas said "some details still need to be worked out."