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Israel Agrees To Release Palestinian Prisoners


An Israeli cabinet member said today that officials plan to release some Palestinians who have been in prison in Israel for decades. This appears to be part of the diplomatic dance around restarting peace negotiations between the Palestinians and Israel. After six visits to the region in six months, Secretary of State John Kerry announced yesterday that there is enough agreement to begin initial talks next week or soon after in Washington, D.C.

But it's not clear what the sides have really agreed to. As NPR's Emily Harris reports, that uncertainty may help leaders quiet opposition, but it also makes it difficult to rally support.

EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: Secretary Kerry said he's hopeful that initial talks in Washington will lead to real results.

SECRETARY JOHN KERRY: I'm hopeful because of the courageous leadership shown by President Abbas and Prime Minister Netanyahu. Both of them have chosen to make difficult choices here and both of them were instrumental in pushing in this direction.

HARRIS: And both leaders have not yet told their people on what terms they've agreed to talk. For months, Palestinian officials said publicly they cannot negotiate while Israelis continue to build homes in the West Bank. Israeli has given no concrete assurances of stopping. Palestinian politician Mustafa Barghouthi says it will be very difficult to stay in negotiations if settlements keep going up.

MUSTAFA BARGHOUTHI: It's like negotiating over a piece of cheese. One side is eating it and the other side is watching and they're negotiating about it. At the end of the day, we will have nothing to negotiate about.

HARRIS: A related issues is borders. Palestinian officials wanted talks to assume that a new Palestinian border would follow Israel's border before it won the 1967 war. It's not clear whether Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed to this at all. If he has, the secrecy is for good reason, says Israeli political analyst Reuven Hazan.

REUVEN HAZAN: If this does come out and Benjamin Netanyahu has to make a serious decision because his governing majority will not hold if he talks about anything close to the '67 borders and the removal of settlements.

HARRIS: Hazan says other parties could step in and form a new Israeli government supportive of peace talks on those terms, but he believes this would require a political and personal sea change for Netanyahu.

HAZAN: In other words, these negotiations won't just reveal if he's willing to move forwards. They will reveal if he's looking at his political base or he's become a leader and is looking at Israel's legacy.

HARRIS: Secretary Kerry says the terms of negotiations have not yet been formalized. Azam Abu Bakr is one Palestinian official willing to withhold judgment until he learns more. But eventually, he says, people will insist on knowing details of negotiations.

AZAM ABU BAKR: (Through Translator) What will Mahmood Abbas tell people whose sons are in jail? What will Palestinian leaders tell people whose lands have been confiscated? These problems are supposed to be solved.

HARRIS: As are questions of Arab recognition of Israel as Jewish state and Israel's security. Emily Harris, NPR News, Jerusalem.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

International Correspondent Emily Harris is based in Jerusalem as part of NPR's Mideast team. Her post covers news related to Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip. She began this role in March of 2013.
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