NEW: Peace negotiations set to start Monday night in Washington, says U.S. State Department
In West Bank, Palestinian police clash with protesters over startup of talks with Israel
Israel plans to release 104 Palestinian prisoners, starting next week
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu calls 14-6 vote "tough decision"
The recently resuscitated momentum toward Mideast peace talks has picked up even more steam, with the U.S. State Department announcing Sunday afternoon that initial meetings are planned for Monday night, in addition to previously anticipated meetings on Tuesday.
The Israelis will be represented by Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Yitzhak Molcho, and the Palestinians will be represented by Chief Negotiator Saeb Erekat and Mohammad Shtayyeh, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement, which said the prinicpals would “formally resume direct final status negotiations. “
Ahead of the talks, the Israeli government on Sunday approved freeing 104 Palestinian prisoners, despite popular sentiment against such a release.
Before his weekly Cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged his government to vote in favor of the prisoner release, despite reservations.
“This moment is not easy for me. It is not easy for the ministers,” he said. “It is not easy especially for the families, the bereaved families, whose heart I understand. But there are moments in which tough decisions must be made for the good of the country, and this is one of those moments.”
The measure passed 14-6 with two abstentions
Also at Sunday’s meeting, the Cabinet approved the opening of diplomatic negotiations with the Palestinians and authorized a team headed by Netanyahu and four other top ministers to run the prisoner release.
The votes were designed to build confidence and help kick-start the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. The first of four waves of releases is slated to come after the negotiations get under way.
Some observers see recent displays of goodwill, such as this vote, as signs that the upcoming round of peace talks could prove fruitful.
Comments by top diplomats have sparked hopes as well.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry reiterated his praise for Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Sunday’s statement, saying, “Both leaders have demonstrated a willingness to make difficult decisions that have been instrumental in getting to this point. We are grateful for their leadership.”
But it’s not just in the hands of politicians. The Israeli Cabinet approved a measure stating that any agreement with the Palestinians will be submitted to the Israeli people for a vote.
Also Sunday, Palestinian police in Ramallah, West Bank, clashed with marchers protesting the resumption of negotiations with Israel.
The protesters said the talks indicate a “willingness to concede, against the position of the Palestinian national consensus and even the decisions of the PLO institutions themselves” and called the planned talks “deeply dangerous to the Palestinian national cause,” said the Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association, a Jerusalem-based Palestinian nongovermental organization.
And Hamas, which governs the Palestinian territory of Gaza, said in a statement that it “rejects the Palestinian Authority return to peace talks with the Israeli occupation authorities.”