London, Asharq Al-Awsat—US secretary of state John Kerry announced on Friday that the Israelis and Palestinians have agreed to resume peace talks after both sides came to an agreement on preconditions.
Israel said that it will release a number of Palestinian prisoners as part of an agreement with Kerry. The Israeli minister for international relations, Yuvul Steinitz, revealed that Tel Aviv would release “heavyweight” prisoners.
“I don’t want to give numbers, but this will include heavyweight prisoners who have been in jail for decades,” he told Israel Radio.
The prisoner releases will take place over several phases. The release of prisoners has been a long-standing Palestinian condition for resuming peace talks.
Kerry described the resumption of talks a “significant step forward.” However, despite the significance of this step, the agreement on negotiations fell short of face-to-face meetings between the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships. This agreement follows four months of intensive shuttle diplomacy on the part of the US Secretary of State.
Speaking at a press conference in Amman, Kerry announced that the Palestinians and Israelis had “reached an agreement that established a basis for direct final status negotiations,” adding that this was “still in the process of being formalized.”
However, he warned against “conjecture,” saying that both sides agreed that all comments to the press should come from him.
Kerry said, “The best way to give these negotiations a change is to keep them private.”
“We know that the challenges require some very tough choices in the days ahead. Today, however, I am hopeful,” he added.
The US secretary of state’s announcement on Friday came as something of a surprise, particularly as a meeting of the Palestinian Liberation Organization Executive Committee had initially rejected the prospects of talks on Thursday.
Palestinian sources raised questions about returning to negotiations, calling for Tel Aviv to meet stringent preconditions. While an unidentified Israeli government minister raised Palestinian concerns by saying that Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu merely wants to show willingness to negotiate, but is not truly interested in engaging in a far-reaching peace process.
However, the intensive US diplomacy, including a phone call from US president Barack Obama to Netanyahu on Thursday evening, paid off in the end.
According to the White House, “The president encouraged Prime Minister Netanyahu to continue to work with Secretary Kerry to resume negotiations with the Palestinians as soon as possible.”
Palestinian preconditions for talks have always included recognition of a state along the pre-1967 borders, and a settlement freeze, in addition to prisoner releases.