Israel to free inmates to spur talks

Other Palestinian demands unmet

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JERUSALEM -- A top Israeli government minister said Saturday that Israel would release an unspecified number of Palestinian prisoners to help U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry launch peace talks but added that it would not accede to other key Palestinian demands, including a freeze on new construction in Jewish settlements.

Israel and the Palestinians have tentatively agreed to resume peace talks for the first time in three years, Mr. Kerry said Friday in Amman, Jordan, offering some hope that a conflict that has convulsed the region for decades could be settled at the negotiating table. He cautioned that key details must be worked out before the two sides' leaders sit down face to face.

Yuval Steinitz, Israel's minister of strategic and intelligence affairs, told Israel Radio on Saturday: "There will be some release of prisoners. I don't want to give numbers, but there will be heavyweight prisoners who have been in jail for dozens of years."

The release of Palestinian prisoners is controversial because of the feeling voiced by many Israelis that the Palestinians are blackmailing them to release terrorists. Mr. Steinitz said the releases would come in phases.

"It will not be simple," he said, "but we will make the gesture."

Freeing prisoners is one of the preconditions that Palestinian officials have often said they require as a show of good faith from Israel before they will return to the negotiating table. They have also called for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to announce a freeze on new settlement construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, territory that Palestinians claim for their future state.

Mr. Steinitz said there was "no chance" Israel would enter into any negotiations that begin with a construction freeze or the defining of territorial borders or concessions by Israel.

There are about 100 Palestinians in Israeli jails who have been held since before 1993, the year Israel and the Palestinians signed the Oslo Accords. The pre-Oslo inmates are viewed as heroes by many Palestinians.

Mr. Kerry said late Friday that "if everything goes as expected," Israeli and Palestinian negotiators will meet in Washington, D.C., within a week, "or very soon thereafter," to work out the details of relaunching negotiations.

On Saturday, Mr. Netanyahu praised Mr. Kerry's monthslong effort to revive the peace process, which he called "a vital strategic interest" for Israel.

"It is important in itself to try and to end the conflict between us and the Palestinians, and it is important in light of the challenges that we face, mainly Iran and Syria," Mr. Netanyahu said.

Israeli Finance Minister Yair Lapid reacted to the potential resumption of peace talks with "cautious optimism" Saturday, saying that Israel was not looking for a "happy marriage" with the Palestinians, but rather a "fair divorce."

The last round of direct talks between Mr. Netanyahu and President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority, in 2010, fell apart after 16 hours of negotiations over three weeks, and the U.S.-brokered deal this time includes a commitment for the process to last at least six months.

Still, several Israeli analysts said Saturday they were doubtful about its prospects.

"It's like marriage by a very brutal matchmaker," said Nahum Barnea, a senior columnist for the leading Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot. "The bride and the groom know each other very well, but they don't like each other." He said of Mr. Kerry's achievement, "It's not an agreement -- it's an agreement to have lengthy negotiations," and noted that negotiations "have been part of our life for a very long time."

David Horovitz, a 30-year journalistic observer of the peace process who now runs the news website Times of Israel, said that given Mr. Netanyahu's conservative government and Mr. Abbas' political weakness, he did not see how the new negotiations would succeed where previous rounds had not. In particular, he said, he could not imagine Mr. Netanyahu offering "anything close to" what his predecessor, Ehud Olmert, proposed in 2009, "and Abbas didn't take that."

"To me, the big issue was not whether Kerry would drag them back to the table," Mr. Horovitz said. "The question is how can they reach an agreement. I just don't see viable parameters that both sides could agree upon, to my great sorrow."


The New York Times contributed.


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