Israel has agreed to free a limited number of Palestinian prisoners in a goodwill gesture, an Israeli minister said Saturday, a day after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced a step toward revived peace talks.
An agreement has been reached that "establishes a basis for resuming direct final status negotiations between" Palestinians and Israel, Kerry said Friday in Amman, Jordan.
"This is a significant and welcome step forward," Kerry said.
The announcement came as Kerry visited the Middle East this week and came up with a formula for reanimating peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian territories, a source close to the talks said.
Israel's defense minister said Saturday that his government expressed its intention to begin talks with the Palestinians immediately.
"We are getting to the negotiations with clean hands and great desire to get to an arrangement that will end the conflict," Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon said.
Kerry has been working intensely with the Palestinian side to get them on board, and he met Friday with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, as well as chief peace negotiator Saeb Erakat.
Yuval Steinitz, Israel's Minister of Strategic Affairs, spoke of the prisoner release Saturday morning during a discussion in Ramat Gan, said his spokesman, Yair Cohen.
"As the negotiations proceed, Israel agrees to free, as a goodwill gesture, a limited number of prisoners during the period of the negotiations," Steinitz said.
It is not yet clear how many prisoners will be released and who they will be.
Caught by surprise?
A senior Palestinian official, who did not want to be named because of the sensitivity of the situation, told CNN there was much uncertainty over the latest developments.
"It looks like all the Palestinian leadership were taken by surprise regarding the decision and announcement by Mr. Kerry and the decision by President Abbas," he said. "There is nothing clear and we need clarifications."
The official said all prisoners being held in Israeli jails should be freed, but that no information has been given on who might be released.
Mustafa Barghouti, a Palestinian legislator and leader of the Palestinian National Initiative, a political party, told CNN that the negotiations "are bound to fail sooner than later" if there is no commitment to clear terms of reference and a freeze on Israeli settlements in occupied territory.
Kerry's declaration "reveals a very fragile situation which could collapse at any moment because of internal differences in the Israeli government, which refuses to commit to internationally accepted 1967 borders, and which is refusing to stop the settlement construction and activities," he said.
On prisoners, Barghouti said: "We welcome any release of prisoners, especially who were arrested before 1993." But, he added, "It makes no sense if Israel releases 200 prisoners and arrests 250 in the same month."
Speaking in Amman, Kerry said that if everything goes as expected, representatives for the two sides will join him in Washington "for initial talks within the next week or so, and a further announcement will be made by all of us at that time."
Kerry praised the "courageous leadership" of both Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, saying they had chosen to make difficult decisions.