JERUSALEM – The U.S. announced that the first substantive peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians in years will begin Monday evening in Washington, after Israeli leaders agreed Sunday to release 104 Palestinian prisoners.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki announced that the preliminary talks will be led by Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat.
Earlier Sunday, calling it “painful for the entire nation,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu won a vote in his divided Cabinet to release the Palestinian prisoners, many convicted of killing Israelis, in order to restart peace talks brokered by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.
The list of prisoners who may be released in coming days includes Palestinian militants who threw firebombs, in one case at a bus with children aboard; stabbed and shot civilians, including women, elderly Jews and suspected Palestinian collaborators; and ambushed and killed border guards, police, security agents and soldiers. All of them have been in prison prior to 1993; some were serving life sentences.
The Israeli public considers them terrorists with blood on their hands. Palestinians see them as freedom fighters struggling to reclaim their homeland and oust the occupiers. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and his leadership refused to return to the negotiating table without their release.
Whether it was a grudging gesture of good will, diplomatic blackmail or something in between, Netanyahu made a major concession to Kerry and the Palestinians.
In a sign of how divided Israel and this coalition government is, the vote among Netanyahu’s Cabinet ministers to release the prisoners was 13 to 7, with two abstentions.
In a parallel move, the Israeli Cabinet also approved Netanyahu’s call for a national referendum that would allow Israeli voters to approve or reject any peace deal he makes.
Israeli officials said the prisoners will be released “in stages” four times over the next nine months, with the first release to take place soon after the initial talks in Washington this week.
Erekat called it “a step toward peace,” and said, “I hope that we can use this opportunity that the U.S. has provided for us to resume negotiations,” according to The Associated Press.
More prisoners would be freed as negotiations continue, though Netanyahu warned that “every Palestinian provocation will result in halting of the prisoner-release process.”
The prime minister called the prisoners he was about to release “depraved people, even if most of them have been in prison for over 20 years.”
In an “open letter to Israeli citizens” published Saturday night, Netanyahu explained, “this is an incomparably difficult decision, it is painful for the bereaved families and it is painful for the entire nation and it is also very painful for me.”
While most polls show a majority of Israelis support the peace process, releasing prisoners is unpopular across the political spectrum.
“From time to time, prime ministers are called on to make decision that go against public opinion — when the matter is important for the country,” Netanyahu said in the open letter. “(I)t seems to me that it is very important for the State of Israel to enter into a diplomatic process.”
Netanyahu stressed that while he agreed to release prisoners, and only after talks begin, he rejected a Palestinian demand that he announce a freeze on new construction in the Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
According to Israeli media, Netanyahu told Kerry that over the next nine months, as many as 1,000 new units may be approved for construction in West Bank and East Jerusalem settlements.