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Israel to free 104 Palestinian prisoners as part of talks deal

Agreement to release 104 prisoners comes as Palestinians drop demand to halt settlements. Hugh Naylor reports from Ramallah

The mother of Palestinian Fares Baroud, who has been held in an Israeli prison for 22 years, cries as she holds his picture after hearing news on the possible release of her son at her house in Shati refugee camp in Gaza City.
The mother of Palestinian Fares Baroud, who has been held in an Israeli prison for 22 years, cries as she holds his picture after hearing news on the possible release of her son at her house in Shati refugee camp in Gaza City.

RAMALLAH // Israel agreed yesterday to release 104 Palestinian prisoners in a move that Palestinian officials deemed sufficient to win their participation in US-backed efforts to restart peace talks.

The cabinet of Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, held a heated debate on whether to release the prisoners that lasted hours longer than expected. In the end, the Israeli premier won with a 13-7 vote, potentially helping the US secretary of state, John Kerry, in his efforts to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

A senior official of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) said it would participate in a meeting scheduled by Mr Kerry tomorrow in Washington to find ways to restart peace talks, which were last held three years ago.

"With this vote, we will go to talks in Washington on Tuesday," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Tomorrow's discussions are expected to be held between Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator; Israel's justice minister, Tzipi Livni; and Mr Netanyahu's aide on peace process matters, Isaac Molcho.

The PLO official said Israel's decision to release the prisoners - who have been held since before the 1993 Oslo peace accords - satisfied one of two key demands for a return to preliminary peace talks.

Mr Kerry, the official said, had already agreed to meet their other demand of using as a basis for negotiations the boundaries that existed before the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, when Israel captured the territories wanted for a Palestinian state.

The official described the secretary of state as applying "serious" pressure on the Israeli prime minister to meet Palestinian demands.

Visiting the region six times this year, Mr Kerry has invested considerable American prestige in trying to revive talks, which broke down in 2010 because Mr Netanyahu refused to stop constructing settlements on land wanted for a Palestinian state.

Aides to Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, also said he was pressured by Mr Kerry to drop his long-standing demand that Israel halt settler construction before talks could resume.

Meeting the basic Palestinian requirements for restarting talks, such as releasing the 104 prisoners, has proven difficult for Mr Netanyahu.

The third-largest part of his coalition, Naftali Bennett's Jewish Home party, vehemently opposed the prisoner release because it would involve people who were convicted of killing Israelis.

"Whoever demands the killers of women and children to be freed are not worthy to be called a partner," Mr Bennett said of the proposed prisoner release.

Also during yesterday's cabinet meeting, Israeli ministers approved proposed legislation that would require putting any peace agreement to a national referendum.

The referendum legislation, which still needs parliamentary approval, could complicate efforts to reach a deal with the Palestinians and is seen as a gesture to Mr Netanyahu's far-right coalition members, who do not support the creation of a Palestinian state.

But Mr Netanyahu also said a prisoner release was "important to the state" and that such concessions were "required from time to time" despite going "against public opinion".

The prisoner release is expected to occur in four stages while peace talks are underway. Fourteen of the prisoners expected to be released are Arab citizens of Israel held for security-related offences.

hnaylor@thenational.ae

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