JERUSALEM — The U.S. on Sunday announced the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian talks following years of stalemate, after Israel’s Cabinet agreed to release 104 Palestinian prisoners convicted of deadly attacks.
The return to direct contacts between the sides gave U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry his first concrete achievement after months of shuttle diplomacy.
The U.S. said preliminary talks would begin Monday, but it’s unclear whether they will lead to a formal resumption of peace talks that broke down in 2008.
Earlier Sunday, the Israeli Cabinet voted 13-7, with two abstentions, to approve in principle the release of 104 Palestinian prisoners. The release is a key part of the Kerry-brokered deal to restart peace talks.
The State Department said Kerry called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas after the Cabinet vote and invited them to send teams to Washington.
State Department spokeswoman Jan Psaki said the teams would meet Monday and Tuesday to “develop a procedural plan for how the parties can proceed with the negotiations in the coming months.”
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat and Abbas aide Mohammed Shtayyeh will represent the Palestinians, and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and adviser Yitzhak Molcho will attend for Israel.
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.
Abbas remains leery of negotiating with Netanyahu, fearing any offer made by the hard-liner would fall short of Palestinian demands.
The preliminary talks in Washington are supposed to close the remaining gaps on the framework for talks, and they could falter at that early point.
Israel’s release of veteran prisoners could help Abbas persuade a skeptical Palestinian public that it’s worthwhile returning to negotiations.
Outside the government complex, hundreds protested against a release. Among them were families of Israelis killed in attacks by Palestinian militants.
In the West Bank and Gaza, some relatives of prisoners anxiously awaited word. “Now there is a big relief,” said Walid Abu Muhsen, 45, whose brother Jamal has been in prison for the past 22 years for killing an Israeli farmer.
The first disagreements emerged just hours after the Cabinet vote, reflecting the hostility and deep mistrust between the two sides.
Under the deal brokered by Kerry, Israel is supposed to free 104 prisoners who carried out attacks before the interim peace agreements of the early 1990s.
Palestinian negotiators handed Kerry a list of 104 prisoners, arrested between 1983 and 1994. They said Kerry assured them Israel would release the prisoners in four stages over several months, with each release linked to progress in negotiations.
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