Middle East peace talks to restart today after five years of stand offs
Israeli and Palestinian teams have flown to Washington ending five years of diplomatic stalemate and preparing for a new round of Middle East peace talks, although optimism was in short supply after 20 years of failed attempts to reach a deal.
The resumption of talks was made possible by a decision by Israel's cabinet to free 104 long-held Palestinian prisoners in four stages, linked to progress in talks. The release was part of an agreement brokered early this month by US Secretary of State John Kerry to bring the sides back to the negotiating table.
Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas has been reluctant to negotiate with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, fearing the hard-line Israeli leader will reject what the Palestinians consider minimal territorial demands.
The Palestinians want a state in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, territories Israel captured in 1967, but have accepted the principle of limited land swaps to allow Israel to annex some of the dozens of settlements it has built on war-won lands.
Mr Abbas had repeatedly said he will only go to talks if Israel either freezes settlement building or recognises the 1967 lines as a starting point for drawing the border of a state of Palestine.
Palestinian officials reiterated that they received US assurances that Washington considers the 1967 lines the basis for border talks.
However, a senior Abbas aide acknowledged that Israel has not signed on to that principle.
Senior Israeli officials have also reiterated in recent days that settlement construction would continue.
The Palestinian official said the expected prisoner release went a long way toward persuading Mr Abbas to give negotiations another chance, even without Israel meeting his long-standing demands on the terms of such talks.
The two teams are to meet in Washington for discussions that will not deal with the fundamental issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but rather aim to lay the foundations for full-fledged peace talks later this year.
Israel is represented by chief negotiator Tzipi Livni and Yitzhak Molcho, a veteran Netanyahu adviser. The Palestinian team consists of chief negotiator Saeb Erekat and Abbas aide Mohammed Shtayyeh.
Hamas, which seized Gaza from Abbas in 2007, has dismissed the new talks, and the militant movement's spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri rejected the notion that Mr Abbas is representing the Palestinians at the talks.
Resuming negotiations "is a dangerous step and the only beneficiary is the occupation (Israel), which uses it as a cover for its continued crimes," he said.
Hamas wants to establish an Islamic state in all of historic Palestine, including what is now Israel. Hamas has raised the possibility of long-term ceasefires under some circumstances, but has made clear it would not consider a partition deal to be the end of the Israeli-Arab conflict.