Prime Minister Netanyahu fights coalition as peace caravan returns

Gazans celebrate the release of Palestinian prisoners on Monday night

Gazans celebrate the release of Palestinian prisoners on Monday night

United States Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Jerusalem this weekend for his 10th visit to the region since being appointed less than a year ago.

This time, he is expected to start talking with Israeli and Palestinian leaders on a “frame agreement”. It is unclear exactly what this agreement will contain, or to what degree the two sides will be committed to its contents. Above all, it is hoped that the deal will allow talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority to be extended beyond the original deadline in April.

On Monday night, Israel released the third tranche of 104 Palestinian prisoners it agreed to set free as a pre-condition for the talks. Most were serving life sentences for murder. They include figures such as Awas Kamil, who killed five Israelis and 16 Palestinian “collaborators”. Eighteen prisoners who were released to the West Bank were given a hero’s welcome by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah.

The High Court turned down petitions by relatives of the murderers’ victims against the release, ruling that they could not intervene in diplomatic decisions of the government.

Right-wing ministers did not try to block the release as they did two months ago. They are now more concerned with preventing further Israeli concessions in the “frame agreement”.

When pressed by his Likud party colleagues on Monday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said: “If we are handed a paper, it will include all the known core issues such as borders, security arrangements, Jerusalem, refugees and recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. But the paper is just principles for managing the talks, not a proposal to end the conflict. Our position is different to that of the Americans and certainly different from the Palestinians’ position.” In recent days, Mr Netanyahu has begun quietly talking to party and coalition partners, trying to convince them that Israel can agree to the frame agreement.

Meanwhile, Israel has ignored warnings from the Americans and European Union by announcing more building in the settlements along with the prisoner release. The government authorised the building of 1,400 new housing units in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The EU ambassador to Israel informed the government of the Union’s “deep concern” over the decision, but no further steps are expected.

Meanwhile, right-wing elements in the government are attempting to pass a law proposed by MK Miri Regev (Likud) to impose Israeli sovereignty on the Jordan Valley. Despite Mr Netanyahu’s opposition, Likud ministers voted in favour in a meeting of the cabinet’s legislative committee. However, the law will not receive government approval and is not expected to pass.

Last updated: 5:45pm, January 2 2014