Israel will release a “limited” number of Palestinian prisoners, government minister Yuval Steinitz has said, a day after the US announced that direct peace talks may resume between the two sides.
“There will be a limited release of [Palestinian] prisoners,” Steinitz, the minister in charge of international relations and strategic affairs, told public radio on Saturday without giving numbers.
He said some of those to be freed have been in Israeli jails for up to 30 years.
The announcement comes a day after US Secretary of State John Kerry said that the groundwork has been laid for resumption of peace talks after an almost three-year stalemate.
“We have reached an agreement that establishes a basis for resuming direct final status negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis,” he said in Jordan.
But after a day in which the deal almost slipped away, the top US diplomat cautioned he would remain tight-lipped about the details.
“The agreement is still in the process of being formalised, so we are absolutely not going to talk about any of the elements now,” Kerry said.
Long months of scepticism
The Israelis and Palestinians remain far apart on final status issues, including the borders of a future Palestinian state, the right of return of Palestinian refugees, and the fate of Jerusalem which both want as a capital.
Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas has also repeatedly called for a freeze to Israeli settlement
Kerry said Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat and his Israeli counterpart Tzipi Livni would meet him in Washington “to begin initial talks within the next week or so”.
The Palestinian presidency hailed Friday’s development. “Abbas’s meeting with Kerry in his headquarters in Ramallah on Friday evening achieved progress, and will facilitate an agreement on the basis of a resumption of talks,” spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeina said.
But Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, said the movement “considers the Palestinian Authority’s return to negotiations with the occupation to be at odds with the national consensus”.
Its spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said Abbas had no legitimate right to negotiate on behalf of the Palestinian people.
Livni, who is also the Israeli justice minister, was optimistic. “These were long months of scepticism and cynicism. But now, four years of diplomatic stagnation are about to end,” she said.