JERUSALEM Israel has agreed to release Palestinian prisoners in order to resume peace talks, but will not yield to other demands the Palestinians say must be met before they return to the negotiating table.
Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz said on Saturday that Israel was prepared to release some "heavyweight" prisoners but could not accept Palestinian demands over the borders of their future state before talks begin.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Friday that Israel and the Palestinians had laid the groundwork to resume talks after an almost three-year stalemate, but that the deal was not final and required more diplomacy.
"There will be some release of prisoners," Steinitz told Israel Radio. "I don't want to give numbers but there will be heavyweight prisoners who have been in jail for tens of years." The release would be carried out in phases, he added.
Palestinians have long demanded that Israel free prisoners held since before 1993, when the two sides signed the Oslo Accords - a interim deal intended to lead to an independent state the Palestinians seek in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
"In all meetings held by President Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas) with minister Kerry and others, the Palestinian demand to release the prisoners topped the agenda," said Abbas's spokesman, Nabil Abu Rdaineh. "Freeing prisoners is a Palestinian priority that should precede any agreement.
There are about 100 pre-Oslo prisoners in Israeli jails, according to the Palestinian Prisoners Club, a Palestinian body that looks after the interests of inmates and their families.
Steinitz indicated that some of those who would be released had been convicted of violent crimes against Israelis.
"It will not be simple, but we will make that gesture," he said.
The Palestinians say the talks must be about establishing a future state with borders approximating the boundaries that existed before Israel captured territories in a 1967 war.
Steinitz said there had been no Israeli concession on that point nor on the Palestinian demand that Israel halt all construction of settlements 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," he said.
A senior Palestinian official with knowledge of the talks told Reuters: "Our position remains clear: resumption of negotiations should be based on the two-state solution and on the 1967 borders."
Kerry said on Friday that the deal between Israel and the Palestinians to resume negotiations was still being "formalised" but that negotiators for both sides could begin talks in Washington "within the next week or so".
Israeli and Palestinian officials told Reuters on Friday the talks would take months to unfold. Steinitz said the Palestinians had agreed to enter talks that would take between nine months to a year.
He said this would stop the Palestinians from taking unilateral steps at the United Nations General Assembly in September, when they had planned to seek recognition for their statehood in the absence of direct talks with Israel.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy told a news conference on Saturday: "We support serious talks to take place with a set and precise time frame."
Kerry's drive to relaunch the peace talks was endorsed 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."
Such a formula could allow Israel to keep large settlement blocs it has said should remain in Israeli hands in any future peace deal.
(Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta in Ramallah; Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza; Yasmine Saleh in Cairo; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)