JERUSALEM — A new round of peace talks between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators began in Jerusalem Wednesday evening, their first substantive attempt at resolving major issues between them in five years.. The talks follow the release of 26 Palestinians held in Israeli jails - a move that has provided further evidence of the split in public opinion on both sides.
“God is Great!” Palestinians shouted and then fired rockets and guns in the wee hours before dawn Wednesday. It was a celebration welcoming home the newly freed prisoners.
Women shrieked in delight as the men were welcomed as heroes. Each had spent more than 20 years in prison for participation in attacks on Israel, and some had been convicted of murder.
The joy of the Palestinians was matched on the Israeli side by dismay, however, and concern that the prisoner release might not result in actual progress toward peace.
Some Israelis support the return to negotiations, even with the releases and pessimism about the outcome. But analyst Jordan Perry at Britain's Maplecroft risk assessment firm said the basic bargain that negotiators are heading for is not popular in Israel - the plan to trade land inside the country's pre-1967 borders for Israeli settlements on the West Bank.
“Any kind of agreement on that front would need to go before a popular referendum, and we've seen in recent polling that actually a majority of Israelis would not accept a retreat to 1967 borders with some land swaps,” he said.
Perry said Palestinians also are divided. “The Palestinians, and particularly the Palestinian Authority, have made some steps toward accepting certain facts on the ground, that would have been previously unpalatable. At the same time also, there are clearly groups within the wider Palestinian political scene which haven't indicated any real shift toward negotiations with Israel.”
Chief among those rejectionist Palestinian groups is Hamas, the militant group that controls the Gaza Strip.
Wednesday's first meeting in Jerusalem is to be followed by another in Ramallah, the Palestinian capital, and the two sides have committed to continue intensive talks, with a news blackout. There is no indication of any revolutionary ideas, though, for tackling key issues like the future of the settlements and Jerusalem, the rights of Palestinian refugees, and the borders of a future Palestinian state, leaving expectations for the outcome of the talks very low.