World

Israeli-Palestinian peace talks begin, mark 1st in 5 years

An Israeli official says a new round of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians has begun. It is the first substantive talks between the sides in nearly five years.

U.S.-sponsored talks are 3rd since 2000 to agree on terms of Palestinian state alongside Israel

The first direct Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in nearly five years are set to begin after Israel releases 26 long-held Palestinian prisoners as a gesture of goodwill 2:53

An Israeli official says a new round of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians has begun.

It is the first substantive talks between the sides in nearly five years.

The Israeli government released a brief video showing the chief negotiators shaking hands. It gave no further details on the whereabouts of the meeting.

The official said the talks were taking place in Jerusalem. The official refused to give further details and spoke on condition of anonymity, as no one had immediate authorization to publicly discuss the talks.

Talks follow prisoner release

The talks started hours after Israel released 26 long-held Palestinian prisoners who were given a boisterous homecoming by cheering crowds.

Both sides have low expectations as they head into the U.S.-sponsored negotiations in Jerusalem, the third attempt since 2000 to agree on the terms of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

The prisoner release, billed as the first of four over coming months, was meant to bring the Palestinians back to the table after a five-year halt of negotiations.

However, a top Palestinian official warned Wednesday that talks could quickly collapse because of Israel's continued settlement building on war-won lands sought for a Palestinian state. Over the past week, Israel made three announcements on promoting plans for a total of more than 3,000 new settlement apartments in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

"The talks might collapse any time because of the Israeli practices," Yasser Abed Rabbo, an adviser of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, told Voice of Palestine radio Wednesday.

In Israel, dovish politicians expressed guarded hope, while hardliners were pessimistic.

"We are committed to making the effort, for the sake of Israel and for Israel's values," Israel's chief negotiator, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, told Channel 10 TV shortly before the talks. "It will be complicated and complex, but I am not giving up."

CBC's Mideast correspondent, Sasa Petricic, has been reporting on the talks from Jerusalem.

"Nobody here really expects any kind of a major breakthrough … because of certain stumbling blocks," including the settlement issue.

 It's unlikely much will be released from the talks immediately, notes Petricic.

"We won’t hear much about them because there’s been a media blackout that has been agreed to by both sides," he says, adding it could be weeks before what is said during the talks is reported. 

Palestinians want settlement freeze 

Cabinet minister Yaakov Peri of the centrist Yesh Atid party said time is running out and that both sides must push hard for a deal. "We won't have a lot more chances to solve this conflict," he told Israel Army radio.

Deputy Defence Minister Danny Danon from the ruling Likud party argued that Israelis today would not accept a peace proposal made by Benjamin Netanyahu predecessor Ehud Olmert.

Such an agreement "will not win support, not just from me, but also from the Likud and, I think, most of the nation," Danon told Israel Radio.

The Palestinians want a state in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, lands Israel captured in the 1967 war. Since that war, Israel has built dozens of settlements that are now home to more than half a million Israelis.

Israeli children play near a construction site during a ceremony to mark the resumption of the controversial construction of housing units in an East Jerusalem neighbourhood Sunday. (Sebastian Scheiner/Associated Press)

Since the first talks in 2000, the outlines of a deal have emerged — a Palestinian state in the vast majority of the war-won lands, with border adjustments and a land swap that would enable Israel to annex land where most of the settlers live.

The last formal peace talks in the region took place in 2007 and 2008, when Abbas and Olmert met dozens of times, mostly in Jerusalem. Before those talks broke down, Abbas proposed a swap of 1.9 per cent, while Olmert asked for 6.5 per cent.

When Netanyahu, took office in 2009, he adopted tougher starting positions. Netanyahu said he would not consider a partitioned Jerusalem and rejected Abbas's demand that the pre-1967 lines be the starting point for border talks.

Abbas, in turn, insisted on a full settlement freeze as a condition for talks. He feared that the vast gaps between him and Netanyahu would render any deal impossible, but that in the meantime, Israel continued settlement building.

Netanyahu has argued that anything can be discussed in talks, including the settlements, and dismissed Abbas's demands as pre-conditions.

In the end, the Palestinians returned to negotiations without a settlement freeze, for fear of harming ties with the U.S. if they were seen as derailing U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry push this year to restart talks.

Kerry has assured Abbas that the U.S. considers the 1967 lines as the basis for border talks, even if Netanyahu does not, according to Abbas aides.

Preliminary talks were held two weeks ago in Washington, and the U.S. envisions negotiations for up to nine months.

Later Wednesday, negotiators were to meet in Jerusalem, though both sides refused to discuss details about the time and venue. The next round is to be held in the West Bank.

Israel is represented by both Livni and Netanyahu aide Yitzhak Molcho, while Abbas advisers Saeb Erekat and Mohammed Shtayyeh speak for the Palestinians.

Abed Rabbo said the two sides are to tackle borders and security arrangements first. Previous negotiations, in 2000 and in 2007-08, broke down before the sides got to the explosive issues of dividing Jerusalem and resettling millions of Palestinian refugees and their descendants.

Released prisoners get jubilant receptions

Meanwhile, the 26 released Palestinian prisoners were giving jubilant receptions in the West Bank and Gaza where they arrived early Wednesday. Thousands of Palestinian well-wishers greeted the prisoners, seen in their communities as heroes in the struggle for independence.

In all, 104 prisoners are to be freed during the negotiations.

A majority had already served at least 20 years for killings, including of Israelis and suspected collaborators. Their release sparked angry protests from some of the relatives of their victims who argued that the government had no right to free killers.

The Palestinians argue that the deadly attacks were carried out at a time of conflict, before the start of peace talks, and that Israel should have released them long ago.

Meanwhile, Israel carried out an airstrike against rocket-launching equipment in the Gaza Strip, the army said. No one was killed in the attack.

The airstrike was in response to a rocket fired into Israel the day before by militants from the area, the army said. The rocket landed in an open area in Israel's south and caused no injuries.

The airstrike came amid increased tensions in Israel's south. On Tuesday, Israel shot down a rocket launched from Egypt toward a Red Sea resort.

Corrections

  • A previous version of this story said the Palestinians want a state in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, lands Israel captured and annexed after the 1967 war. In fact, Israel captured the three territories in the 1967 war and annexed East Jerusalem in 1980, but that claim is not recognized internationally.
    Aug 14, 2013 4:49 PM ET

With files from CBC News