RAMALLAH // Palestinian and Israeli negotiators met in Jerusalem yesterday for their first formal talks on Middle Eastern soil in nearly three years and amid chastening reminders of the difficult path ahead.
There was no immediate word on what was discussed during the talks, which took place late last evening at Jerusalem's landmark King David Hotel. The Palestinian delegation was led by Saeb Erekat and the Israeli team by Tzipi Livni, the justice minister.
Still, the negotiations, the third attempt since 2000 to agree on the terms of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, were again overshadowed by Israel's construction of Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
For the Palestinians, yesterday's talks seemed poised to begin on a cautiously optimistic note after Israel freed 26 long-time Palestinian prisoners early yesterday morning in the first of four promised prisoner releases in the next nine months.
The men, many of whom were serving long sentences for killing Israelis, were overnight bussed to the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip where they were welcomed by hundreds of Palestinians including Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who kissed some of the men and flashed victory signs.
"We congratulate ourselves and our families for our brothers who left the darkness of the prisons for the light of the sun of freedom. We say to them and to you that the remainder are on their way, these are just the first," Mr Abbas told the crowd in Ramallah, where 11 ex-prisoners arrived.
In the Gaza Strip, jubilation also greeted the 15 released prisoners who arrived there.
"I never expected to see him again. My feelings cannot be described in words, the joy of the whole world is with me," said Adel Mesleh, the brother of Salama Mesleh, who had been in jail since 1993 for killing an Israeli.
"I am happy he was freed as a result of negotiations. Negotiations are good," Mr Mesleh said.
The Palestinians' celebratory mood was quickly dampened when a member of the cabinet of the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu - the housing minister, Uri Ariel - announced that he had vowed to build thousands more settler homes in the West Bank, where, together with East Jerusalem, 600,000 Israelis already live.
Since Sunday, Israel has announced plans to move ahead with 2,129 new settler homes.
"We will build thousands of homes in the coming year in Judaea and Samaria," said Mr Ariel, using the biblical term for the West Bank. "No one dictates where we can build."
That declaration prompted an immediate warning from Yasser Abed Rabbo, an aide to Mr Abbas.
"The talks might collapse any time because of the Israeli practices," Mr Abed Rabbo said.
The US secretary of state, John Kerry, telephoned Mr Abbas and Mr Netanyahu late Tuesday to urge both leaders not to back out of negotiations.
In his call to the Israeli leader, Mr Kerry said they had "had a very frank and open, direct discussion of settlements".
Speaking during a visit to the Brazilian capital, Rio de Janeiro, Mr Kerry said Mr Netanyahu "was completely upfront with us and with president Abbas that he would be announcing some additional building that will take place, in places that would not affect the peace map".
That was a reference to areas in occupied Palestinian territory that Israel would like to keep in the event of a peace agreement.
Despite cautioning that the US believed that settler construction should not happen, Mr Kerry suggested that Washington would not stop settlement growth because "there are realities of life in Israel that have to be taken into account here".
The Arab parliament, a body of the Arab League, condemned Israel's advancement of settlements yesterday, calling them a "blatant aggression on the Palestinian territories and a continuation of its fait accompli policy in light of the international community's unwillingness to curb these violations".
The Arab League has backed Mr Kerry's peacemaking efforts and floated a sweetened version of its 2002 offer of normal relations to Israel in return for its withdrawal from the territories it captured during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
* With agencies