Israel and Palestinians to Resume Peace Talks in Washington on Monday Night

In formal invitation to Washington, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry commends 'the courage shown by Benjamin Netanyahu and President Mahmoud Abbas.'

ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid
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ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid

The Israeli and Palestinian negotiating teams will resume peace talks Monday night in Washington, D.C. after the cabinet on Sunday approved the release of 104 Palestinian prisoners who have been imprisoned since before the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993.

Justice Minister Tzipi Livni will represent Israel, along with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s special envoy, Yitzhak Molcho. The two flew to Washington Sunday night. The Palestinians will be represented by chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat.

The sides will meet at an Iftar dinner that breaks the Ramadan fast, to be held at the home of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. The dinner will be relatively informal and is intended primarily to establish a friendly atmosphere. However, a senior Israeli official noted that the parties will begin discussing the agenda for negotiations during dinner.

”The talks will serve as an opportunity to develop a procedural workplan for how the parties can proceed with the negotiations in the coming months,” a State Department statement said. In his invitation to the two leaders to send teams to Washington, Kerry commended “the courage shown by Benjamin Netanyahu and President Mahmoud Abbas.”

The delegations will also meet with Kerry again in the State Department building Tuesday to continue talks on the principles for conducting the negotiations, the issues up for discussion and a timetable for further meetings. At Tuesday's end, a joint press statement will be read out by the secretary of state that will officially declare the start of negotiations.

The meeting in Washington was made possible after the cabinet voted yesterday to release the prisoners, who were involved in the murder of Israelis At the end of a five-hour debate, 13 ministers voted in favor, seven voted against and two - Limor Livnat and Silvan Shalom – abstained.

In coming days, after the negotiating team returns from Washington, a special ministerial committee - headed by Netanyahu - will be convened to discuss the Shin Bet security service recommendations regarding the prisoners to be released. The panel will also include Livni, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch and Science Minister Jacob Perry.

Over the past week the Shin Bet has been evaluating the level of risk posed by each of the 104 prisoners slated to be released. The security service has given the Prime Minister's Office recommendations on how to reduce the threat level. For example, the Shin Bet has recommended that some prisoners not be released, while others should be released only to the Gaza Strip or be deported overseas.

Although in the end the cabinet approved the releases by a significant majority, Netanyahu went though long hours of stress and had to exert pressure on the ministers in his own Likud party. After calling each minister individually on Saturday night, he met with ministers Livnat, Shalom, Yuval Steinitz, Gideon Sa'ar and Gilad Erdan in his office yesterday morning. The discussions ran so long that the cabinet meeting started 90 minutes late.

“There’s a steep price to this decision, but not launching the diplomatic process carries a heavier price,” Netanyahu told his ministers. "Launching the process will help Israel's strategic interests. A team under my leadership will approve the names of those to be released, and if the Palestinians commit provocations during the process, we will stop the releases immediately.”

Ministers sought clarification from Netanyahu about the possible release of Israelis Arab prisoners. During the debate, Shalom proposed a compromise that eased the way for many Likud ministers to not vote against. Under the proposal, which was adopted by Netanyahu, any decision to release Israeli Arabs would require a new vote by the full cabinet. Based on the tentative schedule of prisoner releases, such a discussion is likely to take place, if at all, only in another nine months.

Shin Bet chief Yoram Cohen told ministers that the negotiations “will have the effect of calming the West Bank area, particularly among activists affiliated with the Palestinian Authority, such as Fatah’s Tanzim.”

Economy Minister Naftali Bennett opposed the prisoner releases and warned against entering talks with the Palestinians, saying the two-state concept is “fundamentally wrong.”

Bennett added that the release of the prisoners “teaches the world that, here, everything is negotiable.”

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks during a press conference at Queen Alia International Airport on July 19, 2013.Credit: AP

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