Israel will meet a key Palestinian demand by releasing prisoners who have spent decades behind bars, making a conciliatory gesture to pave the way for peace talks, a senior minister said yesterday.
Yuval Steinitz, the intelligence and strategic affairs minister, made the pledge a day after John Kerry, the US secretary of state, said that Israel and the Palestinian leadership had agreed to hold the first direct peace negotiations for three years.
However, Israel has adamantly rejected a full "settlement freeze", meaning that a prisoner release may be its alternative concession.
"There will be some release of prisoners," said Mr Steinitz, a close ally of Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister. He told Israel Radio: "I don't want to give numbers but there will be heavyweight prisoners who have been in jail for tens of years. The release would be carried out in phases."
The Palestinians have demanded the freedom of up to 300 inmates, many of whom have been in jail since before the Oslo Peace accords were signed in 1993. Israeli sources had said that about 100 prisoners could be released after negotiations resume.
But Mr Steinitz said Israel would not back down on the core issues dividing the two sides, such as the borders of any Palestinian state, the status of Jerusalem and the future of Jewish settlements, a stance that raises questions about the feasibility of the renewed process.
The first meeting between the two sides is expected to take place in Washington next week. However, this will fall short of direct negotiations between Mr Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority. Instead, Tzipi Livni, Israel's chief negotiator, and her Palestinian counterpart, Saeb Erekat, will be the representatives.
One Palestinian official described the forthcoming meeting as "talks about talks", adding: "This is not the resumption of negotiations. Abu Mazen [Mr Abbas] has no mandate to enter direct talks." Asked if the agreement announced by Mr Kerry represented progress, the official said: "How can it be progress? The Israelis have not accepted the 1967 borders as a basis for negotiations." Mr Abbas failed to win approval for new peace talks from the Palestine Liberation Organisation and his own Fatah movement at a meeting last Thursday.
Mr Kerry's announcement followed four months of shuttle diplomacy that saw him pay six visits to Israel and the West Bank. His perseverance removes any doubt over President Barack Obama's willingness to pursue a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the administration's second term.
"Kerry became neither shocked nor exasperated by the intransigence, excuses and manipulations of Netanyahu and Abbas. He would not release his foot from the throttle and in the end he tired out both Netanyahu and Abbas," Mr Ravid wrote.