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Israelis, Palestinians kick off peace talks

Thursday - 8/15/2013, 5:22am  ET

Palestinian released prisoner Burhan Sbeih kisses his mother at his home in the West Bank village of Kofr Raei near Jenin city after his release, Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2013. Israel released 26 Palestinian inmates, including many convicted in grisly killings, on the eve of long-stalled Mideast peace talks, angering families of those slain by the prisoners, who were welcomed as heroes in the West Bank and Gaza. (AP Photo/Mohammed Ballas)

JOSEF FEDERMAN
Associated Press

JERUSALEM (AP) -- With tensions high and expectations low, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators kicked off their first substantive round of peace talks in nearly five years, huddling together at an undisclosed location Wednesday in search of an end to decades of conflict.

The meeting was cloaked in secrecy, an attempt by both sides to prevent leaks to the media and maintain trust. Officials would say only that the talks took place in Jerusalem, and there was no immediate comment from either side. The Israeli government released a brief video showing the chief negotiators shaking hands as the talks continued into the evening.

Ahead of the meeting, there already were signs of trouble. A new Israeli push to build hundreds of new homes in Jewish settlements and fresh fighting in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip underscored the tough road ahead.

"We are committed to making the effort, for the sake of Israel and for Israel's values," Israel's chief negotiator, Tzipi Livni, told Channel 10 TV before the talks began. "It will be complicated and complex, but I am not giving up."

Late Wednesday, both sides confirmed the meeting had ended after several hours. A Palestinian official said they had agreed to meet weekly, alternating between Jerusalem and the West Bank town of Jericho. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sides' commitment to maintain secrecy. No further details were immediately available.

The negotiations came after months of mediation by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who has made six trips to the region since taking office early this year.

It was the third attempt since 2000 to agree on the terms of establishing a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

Negotiations broke down in late 2008 and have remained stalled, in large part because of Israeli settlement construction on occupied land claimed by the Palestinians for a future state. The Palestinians seek to establish an independent state in the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, territories captured by Israel in 1967.

They see Israel's continued construction of settlements, now home to more than 500,000 Israelis, as undermining hopes of dividing the land between two states, a view that is overwhelmingly shared by the international community.

The Palestinians had demanded a halt in settlement construction and an Israeli pledge to accept its pre-1967 lines as the basis for a final border. Those lines had been a reference point in past talks.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refused to make any commitments, saying all disputes should be resolved through negotiations.

The Palestinians have voiced great skepticism about dealing with Netanyahu, who takes tougher positions than his predecessor, Ehud Olmert.

While unable to secure a halt in settlement construction, Kerry has promised the Palestinians that Israel will show restraint. The Palestinians also say that Kerry has assured them that the 1967 borders will be the basis of discussions, even if Israel refuses to say so publicly.

To entice the Palestinians back to the table, Israel released 26 prisoners hours before the talks began, including many who had been convicted in deadly attacks on Israelis. They were the first of a total 104 long-serving prisoners that Israel is expected to release as negotiations progress over the next nine months.

Kerry's envoy, former U.S. Ambassador Martin Indyk, was in the region to mediate.

Officials say that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas agreed to return to negotiations to avoid being blamed for failure. But expectations remain low.

Israel's announcements in recent days of plans to build more than 3,000 settler homes in the West Bank and east Jerusalem have only fueled the Palestinian mistrust.

"The talks might collapse any time because of the Israeli practices," Yasser Abed Rabbo, an adviser to Abbas, told Voice of Palestine radio.

Wednesday's meeting came after a preliminary gathering in Washington two weeks ago.

Abed Rabbo said the talks were to tackle borders and security arrangements first. Previous negotiations, in 2000 and in 2007-2008, broke down before the sides got to the explosive issues of dividing Jerusalem and resettling millions of Palestinian refugees and their descendants

The civil war in neighboring Syria to Israel's north, strife in Egypt to the south and Hamas' control of Gaza have all heightened Netanyahu's concerns about his country's security.

Israeli hard-liners fear the West Bank, where Abbas leads a limited self-rule government, could follow the path of Gaza if Israel withdraws from the area.

Israel unilaterally pulled out of Gaza in 2005, and two years later, Hamas militants overran the territory, seizing control from Abbas' forces. Since then, Gaza militants have frequently launched rockets into Israel. Hamas rejects Israel's right to exist and opposes Abbas' peace efforts.

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