The Palestinians want a state to include the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, territories Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war. However, they are willing to swap some West Bank land for Israeli territory to allow Israel to annex some of the largest Jewish settlements. In all, Israel has built dozens of settlements since 1967 that are now home to some 560,000 Israelis.
The diplomatic paralysis of the last five years was largely due to disputes over the settlements, deemed illegal by most of the international community.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas long insisted he will only resume talks if Israel freezes construction. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected a freeze. Abbas, under pressure from Kerry, eventually dropped it as a condition for talks.
In exchange, Kerry won Israeli agreement that it will release 104 Palestinian prisoners serving long sentences, many for involvement in killing Israelis.
The prisoners are to be freed in four stages during the negotiations, with the first 26 to be released later this week.
Late Sunday, a group of Cabinet ministers selected the names in the first group, to be published early today.
Fourteen prisoners will be released to Gaza and 12 to the West Bank, according to a government statement. Eight of the prisoners had three years left to serve and two would have been released in six months or less, the statement said.
Meanwhile, Israeli Housing Minister Uri Ariel announced Sunday that he has given final approval for the construction of 1,187 apartments in settlements. Nearly 800 are in east Jerusalem and the rest in the West Bank.
Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said the construction was approved in areas that Israel expects to retain in any future peace deal. “There is no way it changes the final map of peace,” he said. “It changes nothing.”
The Palestinians responded angrily, but stopped short of walking away from the negotiations.
“It is clear that the Israeli government is deliberately attempting to sabotage U.S. and international efforts to resume negotiations,” Palestinian negotiator Mohammed Shtayyeh said. “Israel continues to use peace negotiations as a smoke screen for more settlement construction.”