A spokesman for the Israeli government has indicated that they will release an unknown number of long-term Palestinian prisoners in advance of restarting peace talks that broke off in 2008.
Israel will release some “hardcore” Palestinian prisoners as part of the new breakthrough by Secretary of State John Kerry in efforts to restart Mideast talks, a senior Israeli official said Saturday.
The remarks by Yuval Steinitz were the first Israeli comment detailing the terms for the negotiations since Kerry on Friday night announced that the two sides will meet soon in Washington to formalize an agreement on relaunching peace talks that collapsed in 2008.
Kerry’s announcement came after last-minute meetings with Palestinian officials at the end of a day in which he shuttled between the Jordanian capital and the West Bank. In Amman, Kerry said Israel and the Palestinians had agreed on a basis for returning to negotiations, five years after talks broke down.
Steinitz’s remarks on Saturday were all the more surprising because Kerry insisted that the agreement is still in the process of being formalized, “so we are absolutely not going to talk about any of the elements now.”
Steinitz, Israel’s intelligence and strategic affairs minister, told Israel Radio on Saturday that “there will be hardcore prisoners (released) … those that have been sitting in jail for dozens of years.”
In Israeli parlance, term “hardcore” refers to prisoners implicated in deadly attacks. Their release has been a long-standing Palestinian demand. Steinitz didn’t say how many would be released, adding only that they would be freed in phases.
But, Steinitz said, other Palestinian demands will not be met, such as a freeze on settlement building and defining the 1967 lines as borders ahead of the negotiations.
The fate of the prisoners is extremely sensitive in Palestinian society, where after decades of fighting Israel, many families have had a member imprisoned. The Palestinians are held on a range of charges, from rock throwing to deadly assaults like shooting attacks or bombings targeting Israeli soldiers and civilians.
The Palestinians mostly view the prisoners as heroes while Israelis tend to see them as terrorists.
Steinitz also said it was agreed that there would be a timetable of at least nine months during which the negotiations would go on, to prevent them from collapsing along the way.
He also said the Palestinians agreed to refrain from taking action against Israel at the United Nations while the talks are underway.
The Lucy/Charlie Brown football analogy comes immediately to mind, but perhaps this time, Israel has put itself in a better position to claim Palestinian intransigence once the inevitable occurs and the talks fail. I’m talking about the Israeli government’s domestic political position, not the international community who will blame the failure to achieve an agreement on Israel.
The prisoner release and the resumption of talks will raise expectations among the Palestinians. Abbas must try and manage those expectations lest a backlash occur when it becomes apparent he can’t reach a deal.