US: Mideast peace talks to relaunch Monday in Washington

US: Mideast peace talks to relaunch Monday in Washington

Renewed peace talks between senior negotiating teams from Israel and the Palestinian Authority are to be held late Monday and Tuesday in Washington, the US State Department announced, dpa reported.

The restart of negotiations, stalled for nearly three years, is being mediated by US Secretary of State John Kerry, who spoke Sunday with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to personally extend invitations.

Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Yitzhak Molcho, an envoy for Netanyahu, will represent Israel, and the Palestinian delegation will include chief negotiator Saeb Erekat and Mohammad Shtayyeh, who has worked on United Nations issues for the Palestinian Authority, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.

A starting date for talks had been uncertain since July 19, when Kerry announced the relaunch of negotiations.

Israel on Sunday approved the release of 104 Palestinian prisoners as a goodwill gesture, which Kerry had said would facilitate the resumption of talks. Thirteen Israeli cabinet ministers voted in favour of the prisoner release, while seven voted against and two abstained.

The cabinet approved a bill that would make it compulsory to hold a referendum about any peace agreement that would entail giving up territory that falls under Israeli law.

Such legislation would apply to Arab neighbourhoods in East Jerusalem, land near the "green line" that separates Israel from the West Bank, or the Golan Heights. Any prime minister would be able to give such lands only with the approval of Israeli citizens.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had asked for the release of all prisoners held since before the 1993 interim Oslo peace accords, if Israel wanted to resume negotiations.

Palestinian Prisoners Club head Qadura Fares said Abbas had accepted release in four stages, starting six weeks after talks resume, with six-week intervals between subsequent stages.

The Prisoners Club published a list with 104 names of Palestinians held since the 1980s and early 1990s.

"If not everyone will be released, there will be no negotiations," Fares said.

He said the Palestinian Authority would not accept the release of prisoners to the Gaza Strip, rather than their homes in the West Bank.

"We will not accept deportations. Deportation is a punishment from our point of view," he told Israel Radio. "What is that, to deport elderly people who are all older than 50?"

Netanyahu said he would head a team of senior ministers who, along with the Shin Bet internal security agency, would compose Israel's own list of 104 names.

"We will decide on a list of prisoners who are to be released, after the opening of the negotiations and in accordance with progress," Netanyahu said.

"This moment isn't easy for me. It isn't easy for the ministers and especially it isn't easy for the bereaved families, who are close to my heart. But there are moments in which you have to take difficult decisions for the benefit of the state, and this is one of those moments."

About 100 people, including relatives of Israelis killed in attacks by Palestinian militants, protested outside Netanyahu's office in Jerusalem, chanting "No to the release of terrorists" and "no to the release of murderers of children."

Naftali Bennett, leader of the ultra-nationalist Jewish Home party - Netanyahu's hardline coalition partner - said he would vote against the release.

"It is peculiar that in the state of Israel, murderers of women and children are those for whom it is the easiest to get a pardon," he said to cheers of "Thank you! Thank you!" from the demonstrators.

Yuval Steinitz of Netanyahu's Likud party said he would support the release "not because it's such a fantastic proposal" but because Israel had a responsibility to the international community and could not afford to be "portrayed today as the one who refuses peace negotiations."

Militants who killed Israeli civilians "should rot in prison until their last day, but our job is not to do what we feel but rather what is good for Israel and the revival of peace negotiations," said Yair Lapid of the centrist Yesh Atid party.

Almost 5,000 Palestinians are currently jailed in Israel for security-related offences. They include 105 long-serving militants who have been in jail since before the 1993 interim Oslo peace accords.

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