Middle East

Israel's Netanyahu says talks with Palestinians 'vital'

Palestinians call for release of prisoners (file pic April 2013)
Image caption More than 4,000 Palestinians are thought to be held in Israeli jails

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called the resumption of talks with the Palestinians "a vital and strategic interest" for Israel.

He thanked US Secretary of State John Kerry for his "great efforts" to bring the talks about and said he expected them to be held "in a serious and responsible manner".

Earlier, Israel said it would release a number of Palestinian prisoners

Initial talks are due to be held in Washington in the next week or so.

Mr Kerry's announcement of the talks on Friday ended four days of frenetic shuttle diplomacy, on this his sixth visit to the region in the past few months.

He declined to tell reporters what the two sides had agreed to, saying that the "best way to give these negotiations a chance is to keep them private".

But Israel on Saturday said it would release a number of Palestinian prisoners as part of the agreement, including some "heavyweight prisoners in jail for decades".

'Serious negotiations'

Yuval Steinitz, minister responsible for international relations, told Israeli public radio that the deal adhered to the principles set out by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for kick-starting the talks.

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Media captionQuentin Sommerville reports on the latest development after months of shuttle diplomacy

The release of prisoners would take place in stages, he said.

While the number of detainees to be freed is unclear, one Palestinian official said discussions had earlier focused on the release of 350 prisoners over a period of months, including around 100 men held since before 1993, when Israel and the Palestinians signed the Oslo peace accords.

According to Israeli human rights group B'Tselem, 4,817 Palestinians are held in Israeli jails.

For their part, the Palestinians had committed themselves to "serious negotiations" for a minimum of nine months, said Mr Steinitz, who is a member of the prime minister's Likud party.

But he made clear that Israel had not accepted Palestinian pre-conditions, including a halt to settlement construction in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.

"There is no chance that we will agree to enter any negotiations that begin with defining territorial borders or concessions by Israel, nor a construction freeze."

Israel and the Palestinians last held direct talks in 2010, which were halted over the issue of settlement-building.

Settlements are considered illegal under international law, although Israel disputes this.

Palestinian officials say a core demand is that Israel recognises pre-1967 ceasefire lines but right-wing members of Mr Netanyahu's coalition had refused to accept talks based on the issue.

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