Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has welcomed the resumption of peace talks with the Palestinians, saying that they are “an essential strategic interest for Israel” – a move the Hamas government in Gaza called “very dangerous".
“The negotiations are important not only to end the conflict with the Palestinians but also in light of the nuclear threat from Iran and the civil war in neighbouring Syria,” the Israeli leader said on Saturday.
He further said he had in mind a number of objectives, preventing the creation of a bi-national state between the Jordan River and the sea, “which will endanger the future of the Jewish State, and preventing the creation of another Iranian-backed terrorist state within Israel's borders, which could no less endanger us”.
Netanyahu's remarks were his first reaction to the Friday night statement by US Secretary of State John Kerry, who said Israeli and Palestinian negotiators had agreed to meet to pave the way for a resumption of direct talks.
The last round of direct talks broke down in 2010 over the issue of Israeli settlement building in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Israel has decided to free some Palestinian prisoners as part of efforts to restart talks, Israel’s Yuval Steinitz, minister for intelligence, international relations and strategic affairs said.
Steinitz said the prisoners were "serious cases" but did not reveal how many of them would be freed.
Earlier on Friday after days of meetings with both Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Kerry had said the groundwork had been laid for the resumption of talks.
But Steinitz emphasised that Israel was not bound to a freeze on settlement activities.
"There is no chance that we will agree to enter into negotiations that begin by defining our territorial borders and possible concessions, or a construction freeze," he said.
Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, said the resumption of direct talks with Israel was "very dangerous".
Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said Abbas' decision to resume the talks with Israel "contradicts the national consensus that the Palestinians agreed upon".
“Resuming the talks only serves the occupation and gives it a cover for its settlement expansion,” Zuhri said.
Mustafa Barghouti, chairman of the Palestinian Initiative Party, said the talks will fail "because the current Israeli government is a government of settlers and it would never recognise the legal Palestinian right of independence, of ending the occupation and of self-determination.”
Another Palestinian group, Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, said the move “causes severe harm to the Palestinian cause”.
Jamil Mezher, spokesman of the group, said “twenty years of absurd negotiations with Israel achieved a big zero, and only helped Israel to execute its plans of expansion”.