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Israel to free Palestinian prisoners as deal to resume peace talks emerges

By Kareem Khadder, Michael Schwartz and Laura Smith-Spark, CNN
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Sat July 20, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Israeli defense chief has "great desire to get to an arrangement that will end the conflict"
  • Minister: Israel will free a limited number of Palestinian prisoners as a goodwill gesture
  • Kerry says two sides could join him in Washington for initial talks "in the next week or so"
  • Palestinian official says news of reanimated peace talks took many Palestinians by surprise

(CNN) -- Israel has agreed to free a limited number of Palestinian prisoners in a goodwill gesture, an Israeli minister said Saturday, a day after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced a step toward revived peace talks.

An agreement has been reached that "establishes a basis for resuming direct final status negotiations between" Palestinians and Israel, Kerry said Friday in Amman, Jordan.

"This is a significant and welcome step forward," Kerry said.

The announcement came as Kerry visited the Middle East this week and came up with a formula for reanimating peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian territories, a source close to the talks said.

Israel's defense minister said Saturday that his government expressed its intention to begin talks with the Palestinians immediately.

"We are getting to the negotiations with clean hands and great desire to get to an arrangement that will end the conflict," Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon said.

Kerry has been working intensely with the Palestinian side to get them on board, and he met Friday with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, as well as chief peace negotiator Saeb Erakat.

Yuval Steinitz, Israel's Minister of Strategic Affairs, spoke of the prisoner release Saturday morning during a discussion in Ramat Gan, said his spokesman, Yair Cohen.

"As the negotiations proceed, Israel agrees to free, as a goodwill gesture, a limited number of prisoners during the period of the negotiations," Steinitz said.

It is not yet clear how many prisoners will be released and who they will be.

Caught by surprise?

A senior Palestinian official, who did not want to be named because of the sensitivity of the situation, told CNN there was much uncertainty over the latest developments.

"It looks like all the Palestinian leadership were taken by surprise regarding the decision and announcement by Mr. Kerry and the decision by President Abbas," he said. "There is nothing clear and we need clarifications."

The official said all prisoners being held in Israeli jails should be freed, but that no information has been given on who might be released.

Mustafa Barghouti, a Palestinian legislator and leader of the Palestinian National Initiative, a political party, told CNN that the negotiations "are bound to fail sooner than later" if there is no commitment to clear terms of reference and a freeze on Israeli settlements in occupied territory.

Kerry's declaration "reveals a very fragile situation which could collapse at any moment because of internal differences in the Israeli government, which refuses to commit to internationally accepted 1967 borders, and which is refusing to stop the settlement construction and activities," he said.

On prisoners, Barghouti said: "We welcome any release of prisoners, especially who were arrested before 1993." But, he added, "It makes no sense if Israel releases 200 prisoners and arrests 250 in the same month."

New city offers vision of better life in West Bank

'Courageous leadership'

Speaking in Amman, Kerry said that if everything goes as expected, representatives for the two sides will join him in Washington "for initial talks within the next week or so, and a further announcement will be made by all of us at that time."

Kerry praised the "courageous leadership" of both Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, saying they had chosen to make difficult decisions.

"They have courageously recognized that in order for Israelis and Palestinians to live together side by side in peace and security, they must begin by sitting at the table together in direct talks."

Kerry thanked Jordan's King Abdullah and Foreign Minister Nasr Judeh for their help during his visit, as well as the Arab League for its support of the peace initiative.

King Abdullah arrived in Cairo on Saturday to brief Egyptian officials about the agreement reached between the Palestinians and Israel on resuming peace talks, Jordan's royal court press office said.

His visit is the first to Egypt by a foreign head of state since the July 3 ousting of former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy.

Meanwhile, Israel Defense Forces and the U.S. European Command are scheduled to hold a bilateral aerial exercise Sunday by both of their air forces, Israeli officials said. The regularly scheduled exercises will last about two weeks.

'Right for our future'

Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni lauded the prospect of peace.

"These past few months were long, filled with doubt and cynicism," Livni said in a statement Friday. "But now, four years of political stagnation are coming to an end.

"I know that, despite this being an opportunity, once the negotiations begin they will be complex -- but I am convinced with all my heart that this is the right thing for our future, our security, our economy and Israel's values."

She expressed respect for Netanyahu "for making the decisions representing Israel's important interests, as well for American Secretary of State, John Kerry, which led us and the Palestinians into the negotiations room."

In the Palestinian territory of Gaza, however, Hamas dismissed the renewed effort for peace talks.

"This negotiation will be useless. It is not going to achieve anything for the Palestinian people. It will not help the prisoner issue, the border issue or the land issue," the group said in a statement. Israel imposed an economic blockade on Gaza shortly after Hamas was elected to run its government in 2006.

Talks based on land swaps, pre-1967 borders?

Kerry urged people to wait for all the elements of the agreement to be formalized, rather than guess at the detail.

"Any speculation or reports you may read in the media ... are conjecture ... because the people who know the facts are not talking about them," he said.

One of the reports Kerry may have been referencing was a Reuters report quoting an Israeli official who said the Jewish state agreed to a plan for peace talks based on pre-1967 borders and land swaps.

It would be in line with a decades-old United Nations resolution calling on Israel to release territories it gained during a war, a demand that Israel has historically fought. But it would help create contiguous borders for a future Palestinian state that would coexist next to a Jewish state.

Israel's official reaction to the report has been denial.

A sporting push for peace in Israeli-Palestinian relations

CNN's Jason Hanna, Joe Sterling, and Michael Martinez contributed to this report.

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