Israel and the Palestinians have laid the groundwork for resuming peace talks after an almost three-year stalemate, US Secretary of State John Kerry said on Friday, although he cautioned the deal was not final and required more diplomacy.
Israeli Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz said on Saturday that Israel has agreed to a long-standing Palestinian demand to release Palestinian prisoners in order to resume peace talks, but will not yield on other central issues seen as essential for Palestinians to resume peace talks.
Kerry, winding up his sixth Middle East brokering mission this year, gave few details on the planned peace talks. He anticipated Israeli and Palestinian envoys would come to Washington soon for what a US official said would mark the launch of direct negotiations.
"I am pleased to announce that we have reached an agreement that establishes a basis for resuming direct final-status negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis," Kerry told reporters in Amman.
"The best way to give these negotiations a chance is to keep them private," he said. "We know that the challenges require some very tough choices in the days ahead. Today, however, I am hopeful."
Speaking to Israel Radio, Steinitz said that "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 tens of years," he said. The release would be carried out in phases, he added.
Palestinians have long demanded that Israel free prisoners who have been held in Israeli jails since before 1993, the year the two sides signed the Oslo Accords – an interim deal that was intended to lead to an independent state the Palestinians seek in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
But when it came to other sticking points, Steinitz said Israel would not give way.
"There is no chance that we will agree to enter any negotiations that begins with defining territorial borders or concessions by Israel, nor a construction freeze."
Steinitz said there had been no Israeli concession on the issue of defining borders along pre-1967 lines, and on the Palestinian demand that Israel halt all construction in its West Bank and East Jerusalem settlements.
The Palestinians, with international backing, have said that state must have borders approximating the territories' boundaries before Israel captured them in the 1967 Middle East War – a demand hard to reconcile with the Jewish state's insistence on keeping swathes of settlements under any eventual peace accord.
Israeli settlements are seen as illegal under international law.
Peacemaking has ebbed and flowed for two decades, last breaking down in late 2010 over Israel's settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, where, along with the Gaza Strip, Palestinians seek statehood.
Israeli and Palestinian officials cautiously welcomed Kerry's announcement.
"I know that as soon as the negotiations start, they will be complex and not easy," Tzipi Livni, the Israeli Cabinet minister in charge of the diplomatic drive, wrote on Facebook. "But I am convinced with all my heart that it is the right thing to do for our future, our security, our economy and the values of Israel."
Wasel Abu Youssef, a senior member of the umbrella Palestine Liberation Organisation, told Reuters: "The announcement today did not mean the return to negotiations. It meant efforts would continue to secure the achievement of Palestinian demands.... Israel must recognize the 1967 borders."
Kerry said that Livni and Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat could travel to Washington "within the next week or so, and a further announcement will be made by all of us at that time."
Asked if that meeting of envoys would be considered the start of negotiations, a US official said, "Yes."
The talks would take months to unfold, an Israeli and a Palestinian official told Reuters on condition of anonymity. Such a duration, the Israeli official said, was needed "to ensure the process is substantive and comprehensive, and to get us past September."
That referred to the annual UN General Assembly, where the Palestinians had planned to seek recognition for their statehood claim in the absence of direct engagement with the Israelis.
The United Nations welcomed Kerry's announcement in a statement that called it a "positive development," but it also urged both sides to "show leadership, courage, and responsibility to sustain this effort towards achieving the two-state vision."
Netanyahu, a right-winger, has balked at withdrawing to the 1967 lines, and his coalition government includes a nationalist-religious faction opposed to any settlement removal.
But another coalition partner, centrist Finance Minister Yair Lapid, told Israel's top-rated Channel Two television, "There is a solid majority in this Cabinet for going to negotiations."
Abbas' own authority is in question; while his US-backed administration holds sway in the West Bank, Gaza is governed by rival group Hamas, which rejects permanent coexistence with the Jewish state.
"Abbas does not have the legitimacy to negotiate on fateful issues on behalf of the Palestinian people," Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said.
Kerry's announcement, on the Jewish Sabbath evening and as Muslims ended their daily Ramadan fast, may have been meant in part to deflect domestic scrutiny from Netanyahu and Abbas.
Their "courageous leadership" was commended by Kerry.
"Both of them have chosen to make difficult choices here, and both of them were instrumental in pushing in this direction. We wouldn't be standing here tonight if they hadn't made the choices," he said.
Kerry's drive to relaunch Israeli-Palestinian peace talks was endorsed earlier this week by the Arab League, which potentially holds out the prospect of a broader regional peace with Israel upon the establishment of a Palestinian state.
The Arab League's own peace proposals, launched over a decade ago, foundered on the issue of a return to 1967 borders, but it confirmed on Wednesday it had shifted its position to countenance "limited exchange of territory of the same value and size".