After three years of a stalemate — and six middle east trips by Secretary of State John Kerry — Israel and Palestine will try again on Monday to resume peace talks. The Washington-based, direct talks will attempt to "develop a procedural workplan" for full-blown peace talks in the next few months.
As a prelude to the official announcement of the start of the talks, Israel's Cabinet narrowly agreed, by a vote of 13-7, to release 104 Palestinian prisoners, at least some of whom were jailed for killing Israelis. Most of those slated for release — the names aren't yet public — have been jailed for over two decades, before the Oslo peace accords were signed in 1993. Because the deaths in question occurred out of peacetime, many Palestinians regard the jailed as political prisoners. But their release is wildly unpopular with Israelis.
In any case, as The Guardian explains, the actual release process will happen in batches, apparently as a way to keep some of the leverage gained by Palestinians — while the first batch will go free at the end of Ramadan, the rest will be released in stages, pending progress on the talks. The Palestinian Authority leadership had indicated that prisoner release was a necessary condition to get PA president Mahmoud Abbas's representatives to the table. It looks like the promise of release was a good enough starting point for this week's meetings.
Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will send representatives to D.C. for the preliminary talks. For the Israelis, that's Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Yitzhak Molcho. The Palestinians are sending Chief Negotiator Saeb Erekat and Mohammad Shtayyeh.
In 2010, direct talks came to a screeching halt, despite U.S. involvement, when Palestinians walked away from negotiations after Israel refused to stop building settlements on Palestinian land. The West Bank settlements won't go under a freeze during the current talks, though Netanyahu has agreed to slow down slightly in approving new housing units. Late last year, Israel began a new wave of settlement building a day after Palestine gained non-member observer state status in the U.N. While the preliminary talks hinged upon a deal on the Palestinian prisoners, it's certain that settlements will become a focus of the talks, should they proceed: Israel wants to keep most of the settlements they've established in the West Bank and in the disputed East Jerusalem. The Palestinians, meanwhile, want the talks to use the 1967 borders as a starting point — that's before the Six Day War, when Israel took over Gaza, Sinai in Egypt; East Jerusalem the West Bank from Jordan, and Syria's Golan Heights. The U.S. is expected to endorse the 1967 borders starting point.