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Mideast talks hinge on deal to free prisoners

JERUSALEM — After a week of intense diplomatic meetings with Palestinian leaders, Secretary of State John Kerry is counting on an Israeli government decision to release long-serving Palestinian prisoners as the crucial remaining step for his promised resumption of Middle East peace talks, officials said Saturday.

A senior Israeli minister, Yuval Steinitz, told Israel Radio, “There will be some release of prisoners,” including some he described as “heavyweight,” a term that frequently refer to prisoners implicated in deadly attacks.

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A Palestinian official, Ahmed Majdalani, said Kerry had assured the Palestinians that Israel would free some 350 prisoners gradually in the coming months, the Associated Press reported. The prisoners would include some 100 men that Israel convicted of crimes committed before interim peace accords were signed in 1993.

Officials have said privately that the formula Kerry negotiated for resuming talks involves the United States making a declaration about the 1967 prewar borders of Israeli and about recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. However, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority are allowed to distance themselves from it while still negotiating.

The return to the 1967 borders and a freeze of Israeli settlement building are two key demands of the Palestinians.

Israeli officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the prisoner release — and the larger agreement to resume talks — depends on a vote in the coming days by an Israeli leadership that has been bitterly divided over the issue.

In announcing Friday that Israelis and Palestinians had established “a basis” for resuming direct peace negotiations, Kerry included a caveat. “If everything goes as expected,” he said, chief negotiators for each side will convene in Washington “within a week or so.”

That, apparently, was a reference to the prisoner deal, negotiated in hurried telephone calls with Netanyahu on Friday evening as Kerry was eager to get home but determined not to leave empty-handed after six visits in four months.

There was no Israeli confirmation Saturday on how many Palestinian prisoners are to be released and when, but that is unlikely to happen before the first meeting in Washington.

It was also not clear whether the vote required was of Netanyahu’s full Cabinet or a smaller circle of top ministers known as the Security Cabinet, both of which meet regularly on Sundays; Netanyahu has secured the support of several key ministers.

The prisoner issue has profound emotional resonance on both sides. Palestinians consider the men in Israel’s jails, particularly those serving since before Oslo, prisoners of war. Israelis call them terrorists.

Some have been convicted of multiple murders, and the families of their victims have made appeals against the release.

“Releasing terrorists in order for there to be negotiations and a meeting in Washington in a week’s time — we’re getting nothing in return,” Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon complained on Israel Radio. “They’re not in prison for traffic violations. They’re major terrorists who have murdered, some with their own hands. They’ve kidnapped soldiers, buried them alive, shocking stories.”

Netanyahu’s office refused to discuss the deal on Saturday. Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said he had “committed to John Kerry and President Abbas to shut up for 48 hours until we finalize everything, but things are looking good.”

“It’s really very, very hard, but I gave my commitment,” said Erekat, normally the most talkative of Palestinian politicians. “We’re going to do everything to make it work.”

He said the Palestine Liberation Organization’s executive committee, which had balked at the terms proposed in stormy sessions on Thursday, would meet again on Sunday, though it was unclear whether any action was required on its part for the deal to move forward.

The last round of direct talks between Netanyahu and Abbas, in 2010, fell apart after 16 hours of negotiations over three weeks, and the American-brokered deal this time includes a commitment for the process to last at least six months.

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