JERUSALEM (AFP) – Israeli and Palestinian negotiators were set to meet Wednesday evening in a Jerusalem hotel for a new round of direct peace talks, the first in three years.
Palestinian officials told AFP negotiators would meet at 8:00 pm (1700 GMT) in the prestigious King David hotel, although there was no Israeli confirmation.
The meeting is overshadowed by Israeli plans to build thousands of new homes on land the Palestinians claim for their future state and by open pessimism on both sides.
Israel freed 26 Palestinian prisoners Wednesday but also pledged to keep up the pace of settlement building.
Those released from jail were the first batch of 104 prisoners, most of whom had been serving life terms for killing Israelis, who are to be freed in stages depending on progress in the talks.
But as Palestinians celebrated the release Housing Minister Uri Ariel cast a pall over proceedings.
“We will build thousands of homes in the coming year in Judaea and Samaria,” Ariel told public radio, using the biblical Hebrew term for the West Bank.
“No one dictates where we can build… This is just the first course,” he added, hinting at more building to come.
His remarks came as the negotiating teams readied for the talks, the result of marathon efforts by US Secretary of State John Kerry, who convened an initial meeting between the sides in Washington on July 30.
Israel’s settlement building in the occupied territories is considered illegal under international law
Although the overnight prisoner release was welcomed by the Palestinians, it did little to placate their anger after Israel announced plans this week to push on with 2,129 new settler homes — the vast majority in annexed east Jerusalem.
The last round of direct peace talks broke down just weeks after they were launched in September 2010 in a bitter row over settlements.
Commentators said the timing of the settlement announcements was aimed at appeasing hardliners in the right-wing coalition of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu but was also something of a quid pro quo for the prisoner release.
In a bid to defuse the latest crisis, Kerry phoned Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas late on Tuesday, a senior Palestinian official told AFP.
So far, both sides have remained silent over the agenda for the negotiations. The two sides have committed themselves to give the talks at least nine months in which to reach an accord.