Israel and Palestinians Set to Resume Peace Talks, U.S. Announces


Israeli and Palestinian negotiators will resume peace talks here on Monday night, the State Department said in a statement on Sunday afternoon. It will be the first time that the two have held direct talks since 2010.

Clearing the last obstacle to resuming peace talks, the Israeli cabinet voted Sunday to approve the release of 104 Palestinian prisoners, an unpopular move with many Israelis.

Secretary of State John Kerry then spoke with Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel to formally invite them to send their negotiating teams to Washington. “Both leaders have demonstrated a willingness to make difficult decisions that have been instrumental in getting to this point,” Mr. Kerry said in a statement. “We are grateful for their leadership.”

The goal of the negotiations will be to establish a Palestinian state alongside Israel with agreed-upon borders and security arrangements.

Officials said that talks are initially expected to focus on procedural issues, like the location, schedule and format of negotiating sessions, before moving on to tackle the core issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The Israeli side will be represented by Israel’s justice minister, Tzipi Livni, and Isaac Molho, Mr. Netanyahu’s special envoy. On the Palestinian side will be Saeb Erekat, the chief negotiator, and Mohammed Shtayyeh, a close adviser to Mr. Abbas.

The Monday evening session will be a working dinner at the State Department, hosted by Mr. Kerry, who has made an intensive effort to revive the moribund talks. The Israeli and Palestinian negotiating teams are to meet again on Tuesday before heading home.

The next round of talks would be held in the Middle East. Martin Indyk, the former United States ambassador to Israel, whom Mr. Kerry is expected to name on Monday to manage the talks for the United States, would attend that round.

After 20 years of an on-again-off-again peace process, agreement on the thorniest issues, like the status of Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees, has eluded even the most seasoned negotiators.

Mr. Netanyahu worked over the weekend to convince Israelis that a resumption of the peace process was a vital Israeli interest and that a prisoner release was the least damaging concession he could make.

After six hours of deliberations on Sunday, 13 ministers voted in favor of the release, 7 opposed it and 2 abstained.

The prisoners, most of whom have served at least 20 years for deadly attacks on Israelis, are to be freed in groups. The pace of the releases will depend on progress in the talks.

“This moment is not easy for me. It is not easy for the ministers. It is not easy especially for the families, the bereaved families, whose heart I understand,” Mr. Netanyahu said in televised remarks at the meeting. “But there are moments in which tough decisions must be made for the good of the country, and this is one of those moments.”

Mr. Erekat described the decision in a statement as “an overdue step toward the implementation of the Sharm el-Sheik agreement of 1999.” He added, “We welcome this decision, 14 years later.”

But the stormy atmosphere surrounding the cabinet vote underlined some of the challenges that lay ahead for the negotiators.

Two of the ministers who voted against the release were from Mr. Netanyahu’s conservative Likud Party, as were the two who abstained.

Gilad Erdan, one of the Likud ministers who voted against the prisoner release, told Army Radio that he could not support it on moral grounds, because unlike other prisoner exchange deals, “in this case there is no certain reward for Israel and its citizens.”

As the cabinet meeting got under way, scores of Israeli protesters gathered outside the prime minister’s office, including people whose relatives were killed in terrorist attacks. The protesters carried signs bearing the names and portraits of some of the victims.

“It rips our heart out that they are aiding and abetting the terrorists,” said Yehudit Tayar, one of the protesters.

Another potential stumbling block lies in the lack of clarity from the Israeli side about the identity of all the prisoners to be freed.

The Palestinians said they had presented Mr. Kerry with a list of the 104 prisoners, all of whom were convicted before the Oslo peace accords came into effect in the 1990s. The list included about two dozen Palestinian citizens of Israel, and Mr. Erekat emphasized on Sunday that they were among those to be released.

But Israel has long refused to grant early release to such prisoners along with other Palestinians, seeing it as an affront to Israeli sovereignty.

Mr. Netanyahu will lead a team of five ministers who will determine the identity of the prisoners to be released during the negotiations. But he deferred any decision on whether they would include Arab citizens of Israel, saying that any such release would be brought to another cabinet vote.

Moshe Yaalon, the defense minister and a member of the ministerial team, said in a statement on Sunday that he opposed the release of Arab Israelis, adding that Mr. Abbas “does not represent them.”



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