JERUSALEM — The first substantive peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians in years will begin Monday evening in Washington, the Obama administration announced, after Israeli leaders agreed Sunday to release 104 Palestinian prisoners.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the preliminary talks will be led by Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat. The talks, which will continue Tuesday, are expected to address the framework for full negotiations to follow — the talks about talks that had preceded past attempts at a deal.
The release of Palestinian prisoners was one of the major roadblocks to the peace talks.
Calling the prisoner decision “painful for the entire nation,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu won the approval of his divided cabinet earlier Sunday to release the Palestinian inmates, many convicted of killing Israelis, to help restart peace talks brokered by U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry.
The list of prisoners who may be released in coming days includes militants who threw firebombs, in one case at a bus carrying children; stabbed and shot civilians, including women, elderly Jews and suspected Palestinian collaborators; and ambushed and killed border guards, police officers, security agents and soldiers. All of them have been in prison for at least two decades; some were serving life sentences.
The Israeli public views these prisoners as terrorists who have blood on their hands. Palestinians see them as freedom fighters struggling to reclaim their homeland and oust the occupiers. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and his leadership refused to return to the negotiating table without their release.
Regardless of whether it is a grudging gesture of goodwill, diplomatic blackmail or something in between, Netanyahu’s move is a major concession to Kerry and the Palestinians.
In a sign of Israeli divisions over the prisoner release, the vote among Netanyahu’s cabinet ministers was 13 to 7, with two abstentions.
In a parallel move, the cabinet also approved Netanyahu’s call for a national referendum that would allow voters to approve or reject any peace deal he makes.
Israeli officials said the prisoners will be released in four stages over the next nine months, with the first release to take place soon after the initial talks in Washington.
Erekat called it “a step toward peace” and said, “I hope that we can use this opportunity that the U.S. has provided for us to resume negotiations,” according to the Associated Press.
More prisoners would be freed as negotiations continue, though Netanyahu warned that “every Palestinian provocation will result in halting of the prisoner-
The Israeli prime minister called the prisoners he was about to release “depraved people, even if most of them have been in prison for over 20 years.”
This is not the first time that Netanyahu has struck such a deal. In 2011, the Israeli government traded about 1,000 Palestinian and Arab Israeli prisoners for the release of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier abducted by Hamas militants near the Kerem Shalom crossing into the Gaza Strip in 2006. He had been held for five years.
In an “open letter to Israeli citizens” published Saturday night, Netanyahu explained, “This is an incomparably difficult decision, it is painful for the bereaved families and it is painful for the entire nation and it is also very painful for me.”
Kerry, who has made several visits to the region since taking office in February to nudge the Israelis and Palestinians closer to negotiations, said last week that the possibility of finally resolving a conflict that has spanned more than 60 years is the“granddaddy” of international diplomacy.
On Thursday, Kerry chaired a special session of the U.N. General Assembly, during which he praised Israeli and Palestinian leaders for their “courageous decision to try to return to final-status talks.”
State Department officials who briefed reporters on his effort last week said the goal is intensive talks over about nine months. The agreement would set West Bank borders and include promises about Israel’s security once it no longer occupies the West Bank.
Although most polls show that a majority of Israelis support the peace process, releasing prisoners is unpopular across the political spectrum.
“From time to time, prime ministers are called on to make decisions that go against public opinion — when the matter is important for the country,” Netanyahu said in the open letter. He added: “It seems to me that it is very important for the State of Israel to enter into a diplomatic process.”
The prime minister said dramatic change in the region — in Egypt, Syria and Iran — create not only challenges but also “considerable opportunities for us” to strike a deal with the Palestinians.
Netanyahu stressed that although he agreed to release prisoners — and to do so only after talks begin — he rejected a Palestinian demand for a freeze on new construction in the Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
According to Israeli media, Netanyahu told Kerry that over the next nine months, as many as 1,000 new units may be approved for construction in West Bank and East Jerusalem settlements.
Netanyahu was silent on a third Palestinian demand — that negotiations about borders for a future Palestinian state begin with the pre-1967 armistice lines.
Qadura Fares, president of the Palestinian Prisoners’ Society, welcomed the prisoner release as “the right decision for negotiations.”
“It will only help to create an atmosphere of calm. It shows that the state of Israel really does want peace,” he said.
Fares warned, however, that the prisoners must be released to their homes — that a prisoner who hails from Ramallah in the West Bank, for example, not be expelled to the Gaza Strip.
The prisoners have been held since before the signing of the 1993 Oslo Accords, which created interim and limited self-
government for the Palestinians and called for the Israeli military’s withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Israel pulled out of Gaza in 2005.
Because the prisoners’ crimes date to the 1980s and 1990s, in an era before suicide bombing became a widespread Palestinian tactic, the attackers used molotov cocktails, knives, guns and grenades. Many of the attackers were members of Abbas’s Fatah party, and many of their targets were Israeli soldiers.
The Israeli government has not provided details on who would be released and when. But according to Israeli media, Israeli victims groups and Palestinian activists, the list of prisoners to be freed might include Jumaa Adem and Mahmoud Kharbish, who threw a firebomb into a bus in the Jordan Valley in 1988, killing Rachel Weiss and her three children, as well as David Dolorosa, the Israeli soldier who tried to save them.
As Netanyahu and his cabinet debated the release for more than six hours, a few hundred protesters, including relatives of those killed by the Palestinian prisoners, gathered outside the prime minister’s office during the vote and waved signs illustrated with bloody palm prints.
Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, the third most powerful politician in Netanyahu’s government, briefly joined the protest and said he is against the release.
“Terrorists should be eliminated, not freed,” he said, according to the Yedioth Ahronoth news Web site.
Bennett called Netanyahu’s move “a mark of disgrace” and tore into the Palestinian leadership. Anyone “who demands the release of people who murdered and burned children and women is not worthy of being called a ‘partner,’ ” he said.
Other members of Bennett’s Jewish Home party stood beside him and said the release was a sign of weakness, not strength, and was done to appease Washington, which they said would never stoop to releasing terrorists.
“We need to act just like the United States. They have no pity for terrorists. But we are asked to be empathetic,” Meir Indor, leader of the Almagor Terror Victims Association, said in an interview. “The Americans shouldn’t ask us to do what they wouldn’t do themselves.”
Yoni Chetboun, a member of parliament from Bennett’s party who was at the protest, told the Jerusalem Post, “A government that ignores its values so quickly just to enter negotiations will not think twice before uprooting settlements.”
What to do about the 360,000 people living in some 150 Jewish settlements in the West Bank is one of the core issues facing negotiators.
Members of Netanyahu’s party also voiced opposition. “I’m disappointed by the stance of our American allies and the West who adopt this twisted idea and see releasing murderers as something that promotes peace, and building a kindergarten as destroying peace,” Deputy Foreign Minister Zeev Elkin said in a statement.
Elkin was referring to U.S. and European opposition to further construction — of schools and houses — in settlements in the West Bank.
Orly Halpern in Jerusalem and Anne Gearan in Washington contributed to this report.