Middle East peace talks set to begin in Washington next week, says Israeli cabinet minister Silvan Shalom

 

Jerusalem

Israeli and Palestinian negotiators could sit down for face-to-face peace talks as early as next Tuesday, according to an Israeli cabinet minister.

Speaking earlier today, Israeli energy minister, Silvan Shalom, told a meeting in the West Bank city of Jericho that he hoped officials from both sides would meet in Washington next week. “We hope that the talks between Israel and the Palestinians in Washington will begin next week, hopefully Tuesday,” he said. “We want and are interested in moving forward in the negotiations and meanwhile see an improvement in the Palestinian economy.”

According the Haaretz newspaper, an Israeli official later confirmed Mr Shalom’s comments – the first direct negotiations for almost three years.

Palestinian sources were less confident, however. One senior official in Ramallah told The Independent that the Washington talks would begin on Tuesday only if the Israelis provided assurances that the 1967 border between Israel and the West Bank was the basis of territorial discussions and that all Palestinian political prisoners jailed before the 1993 Oslo peace accord were included in a planned prisoner release.

“If we receive this assurance by Sunday, then we will sit down on Tuesday,” he said.

Last weekend, Yuval Steintz, another Israeli cabinet minister and confidant of prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, indicated that “some” prisoners would be freed: “There will be some release of prisoners. I don’t want to give numbers but there will be heavyweight prisoners who have been in jail for dozens of years.”

The Palestinian official accepted that the prisoners would be released in stages, but was adamant that Israel give an undertaking that all prisoners would be released. There are 103 pre-Oslo prisoners in total. Some reports last week suggested that Israel was prepared to free 80 of them, despite internal opposition.

When US Secretary of State, John Kerry, began his diplomatic effort to restart the moribund peace process in March, he was adamant that there would be no pre-conditions for talks. However, it is understood that he gave a personal assurance to Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority President, that 1967 borders would be the starting point for negotiations.

It is unclear just how advanced the deal between the two sides is. Last week, Mr Kerry said he had brokered, “an agreement that establishes a basis for direct final status negotiations,” but he added that a deal is “still in the process of being formalised”.

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