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Monday 19 February 2018

Middle East peace talks to resume

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas chairs a session of the Palestinian cabinet in the West Bank city of Ramallah (AP)
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas chairs a session of the Palestinian cabinet in the West Bank city of Ramallah (AP)
Israel's prime minister Benjamin Netanyah urged his skeptical coalition partners to agree to free Palestinian prisoners as part of peace efforts (AP)

Israeli and Palestinian negotiators are due to resume peace talks in the United States after a divided Israeli Cabinet agreed to release 104 long-term Palestinian prisoners convicted of deadly attacks.

The US said preliminary talks would begin in Washington on Monday. Release of the prisoners is linked to progress in the talks, meaning many could well remain behind bars.

Neither side appeared upbeat, despite the possibility of renewed talks. Each has blamed the other for the lack of success in 20 years of negotiations and Mr Kerry's success so far has been only to get the parties back to the table.

The prisoner release, approved 13-7 with two abstentions, is a key part of the Kerry-brokered deal. Next, Israeli and Palestinian teams meet in Washington, a State Department spokeswoman said, to prepare for six to nine months of negotiations on setting up a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

The US State Department said Mr Kerry called Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas and invited them to send teams to Washington. The State Department said talks would continue on Tuesday. It said the talks would "serve as an opportunity to develop a procedural work plan for how the parties can proceed with the negotiations in the coming months."

Officials said chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat and aide Mohammed Shtayyeh would represent the Palestinians, and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and adviser Yitzhak Molcho would attend for Israel.

Mr Netanyahu, seeking to overcome stiff opposition from ultra-nationalists, told his Cabinet that "resuming the political process at this time is important for Israel," noting that any deal would be submitted to a national referendum. Mr Erekat welcomed the vote on the prisoners as a "step toward peace," one he said is long overdue.

Negotiators made progress in previous rounds, and the outlines of a deal have emerged - a Palestinian state in most of the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, lands captured by Israel in 1967, with border adjustments to enable Israel to annex land with a majority of nearly 600,000 settlers. Those negotiations broke down before the sides could tackle the most explosive issues, a partition of Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees and their descendants, now several million people.

Mr Abbas remains wary of negotiating with Mr Netanyahu, fearing any offer made by the hard-liner would fall far short of Palestinian demands, so he has insisted on a clear framework for negotiations.

Mr Netanyahu has repeatedly called for a resumption of negotiations that broke down in 2008, but he has not sketched the outlines of a deal he would be willing to strike, except to say he opposes a partition of Jerusalem.

Press Association

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