Israel will release some "hardcore" Palestinian prisoners as part of the new breakthrough by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in efforts to restart Mideast talks, a senior Israeli official said Saturday.
The remarks by Yuval Steinitz were the first Israeli comment detailing the terms for the negotiations since Kerry on Friday night announced that the two sides will meet soon in Washington to formalize an agreement on relaunching peace talks that collapsed in 2008.
Kerry's announcement came after last-minute meetings with Palestinian officials at the end of a day in which he shuttled between the Jordanian capital and the West Bank. In Amman, Kerry said Israel and the Palestinians had agreed on a basis for returning to negotiations, five years after talks broke down.
Steinitz's remarks on Saturday were all the more surprising because Kerry insisted that the agreement is still in the process of being formalized, "so we are absolutely not going to talk about any of the elements now."
Steinitz, Israel's intelligence and strategic affairs minister, told Israel Radio on Saturday that "there will be hardcore prisoners (released) ... those that have been sitting in jail for dozens of years."
In Israeli parlance, term "hardcore" refers to prisoners implicated in deadly attacks. Their release has been a long-standing Palestinian demand. Steinitz didn't say how many would be released, adding only that they would be freed in phases.
But, Steinitz said, other Palestinian demands will not be met, such as a freeze on settlement building and defining the 1967 lines as borders ahead of the negotiations.
The fate of the prisoners is extremely sensitive in Palestinian society, where after decades of fighting Israel, many families have had a member imprisoned. The Palestinians are held on a range of charges, from rock throwing to deadly assaults like shooting attacks or bombings targeting Israeli soldiers and civilians.
The Palestinians mostly view the prisoners as heroes while Israelis tend to see them as terrorists.
Steinitz also said it was agreed that there would be a timetable of at least nine months during which the negotiations would go on, to prevent them from collapsing along the way.
He also said the Palestinians agreed to refrain from taking action against Israel at the United Nations while the talks are underway.
Other Israeli officials in the government could not be immediately contacted to back up Steinitz's remarks. There was no word from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who did not meet with Kerry during the American diplomat's trip this week.
And though Kerry's statement fell short of an outright resumption of Mideast negotiations, which would tackle the toughest issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he said the two sides had agreed on "a basis" for the talks.
"If everything goes as expected," Israeli and Palestinians negotiators will hold initial talks "within the next week or so," Kerry said.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who met with Kerry in the West Bank town of Ramallah earlier on Friday, said "lengthy talks ... have resulted in the Palestinians accepting the resumption of talks."
In a statement, Abbas said "some details still need to be worked out."
Kerry said all talks are being held privately.
"Any speculation or reports you may read in the media or elsewhere or here in the press are conjecture. They are not based on fact because the people who know the facts are not talking about them. The parties have agreed that I will be the only one making further comments about this," Kerry said.
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