High level envoys from the Israeli and Palestinian leaders will meet in Washington on Monday to restart stalled Middle East peace talks, according to the State Department.
The announcement in Washington Sunday came shortly after Israel announced plans to release more than a hundred Palestinian prisoners, and represents the first direct dialogue since the peace process fell apart in September 2010.
Secretary of State John Kerry spoke to both Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and asked them to send teams “to formally resume direct final status negotiations.”
“Initial meetings are planned for the evening of Monday July 29 and Tuesday July 30, 2013,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement.
Israel will be represented by Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and negotiator Yitzhak Molcho, and the Palestinians will be represented by chief negotiator Saeb Erakat and by senior official Mohammad Shtayyeh, she said.
The struggle to reach a final peace deal between the Arab world and Israel has moved only fitfully for decades, and talks collapsed completely in 2010 when Israel refused to freeze settlement building on Palestinian land.
“As Secretary Kerry announced on July 19 in Amman, Jordan, the Israelis and Palestinians had reached agreement on the basis for resuming direct final status negotiations,” the US statement said.
“The meetings in Washington will mark the beginning of these talks. They will serve as an opportunity to develop a procedural workplan for how the parties can proceed with the negotiations in the coming months.”
The initial talks are to begin on Monday evening in Washington. Kerry will play host, accompanied by the White House’s Middle East point man Philip Gordon and by State Department adviser Frank Lowenstein.
Kerry has visited the Middle East region six times in the six months since he took office, as Washington renewed its drive to push Israel and the Palestinians back to the negotiating table.
Next week’s talks were expected, but domestic tensions in both camps have kept the talks about talks going to the last possible minute.
Netanyahu’s cabinet met again on Sunday as he battled to convince some of the partners in his coalition government to accept the prisoner release and to approve the resumption of talks.
Israeli public radio reported that the 22-member cabinet had only approved the release by a vote of 13 in favor, seven against and two abstentions.
“The government approved the opening of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians… and mandated a ministerial committee for the release of prisoners during the course of the talks,” Netanyahu’s office said.
The chief Palestinian negotiator welcomed the Israeli vote on prisoners.
“We welcome the Israeli government’s decision to release the prisoners,” Erakat told AFP. “We consider this an important step and hope to be able to seize the opportunity provided by the American administration’s efforts.”
The start of Sunday’s Israeli cabinet meeting was delayed for over an hour, amid reports in Israeli media that Netanyahu was battling to win over opponents within his own right-wing Likud party.
While the names of the prisoners have yet to be published or even revealed to ministers, they reportedly include militants convicted of killing Israeli women and children or of killing Palestinians suspected of collaborating with Israel.
“This moment is not easy is for me, not easy for the ministers, and especially not easy for the bereaved families,” Netanyahu’s office quoted him as telling ministers at the start of the meeting.
The planned releases have stirred protests from Israeli victims’ families, settlers and Netanyahu’s hardline coalition partners.
“Releasing terrorists for peace is like trying to put out a fire with gasoline. It is dangerous, immoral and irresponsible,” settler leader Dani Dayan said in a statement.
Likud Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon urged ministers to vote against the release, branding it “a diplomatic mistake, a moral mistake.”
Ahead of the talks, the Israeli cabinet has also approved a bill that would require a referendum for a peace treaty in some circumstances.
If adopted, the bill would oblige the Israeli government to poll its citizens in cases where territory over which Israel claims sovereignty is ceded in a peace agreement or by a cabinet decision.
So such a vote would not apply to an Israeli withdrawal from the rest of the West Bank, but would apply to changes in east Jerusalem, which Israel occupied in 1967 and annexed, in a move never recognized by the international community.
The Palestinians claim mainly-Arab east Jerusalem as the capital of their own promised state. Israel rules out ceding sovereignty over any part of what it calls its “eternal and indivisible capital.”