JERUSALEM - A top Israeli government minister said Saturday that Israel would release an unspecified number of Palestinian prisoners to help Secretary of State John Kerry launch peace talks but added that it would not accede to other key Palestinian demands, including a freeze on new construction in Jewish settlements.
Israel and the Palestinians have tentatively agreed to resume peace talks for the first time in three years, Kerry said in Amman, Jordan, on Friday, offering some hope that a conflict that has convulsed the region for decades could be settled at the negotiating table. Kerry cautioned that key details must be worked out before the two sides' leaders sit down face to face.
Yuval Steinitz, Israel's minister of strategic and intelligence affairs, told Israel Radio on Saturday: "There will be some release of prisoners. I don't want to give numbers, but there will be heavyweight prisoners who have been in jail for dozens of years."
The release of Palestinian prisoners is controversial because of the feeling voiced by many Israelis that the Palestinians are blackmailing them to release terrorists. Steinitz said the releases would come in phases.
"It will not be simple," he said, "but we will make the gesture."
Freeing prisoners is one of the preconditions that Palestinian officials have often said they require as a show of good faith from Israel before they will return to the negotiating table. They have also called for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to announce a freeze on new settlement construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, territory that Palestinians claim for their future state.
Steinitz said there was "no chance" Israel would enter into any negotiations that begin with a construction freeze or the defining of territorial borders or concessions by Israel.
There are about 100 Palestinians in Israeli jails who have been held since before 1993, the year Israel and the Palestinians signed the Oslo Accords. The pre-Oslo inmates are viewed as heroes by many Palestinians.
Kerry said late Friday that "if everything goes as expected," Israeli and Palestinian negotiators will meet in Washington within a week, "or very soon thereafter," to work out the details of relaunching negotiations.
On Saturday, Netanyahu praised Kerry's monthslong effort to revive the peace process, which he called "a vital strategic interest" for Israel.