JERUSALEM Israel's announcement of plans to expand Jewish settlements on land Palestinians seek for a state clouded the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks convening in the Middle East this week for the first time in three years.
The talks, which opened in Washington on July 30, were due to resume on Wednesday in Israel, with further talks expected later in the West Bank. Peace talks broke down three years ago in a dispute over settlement building.
Israel on Monday named 26 Palestinians who it will free from jail this week as a goodwill gesture for the peace talks. They were expected to be released back to their homes in the West Bank and Gaza Strip possibly as early as Tuesday evening.
The United States is seeking to broker an agreement on a "two-state solution" in which Israel would exist peacefully alongside a new Palestinian state created in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, lands occupied by the Israelis since a 1967 war.
The United States, European Union and United Nations on Monday condemned Israel's announcement on Sunday of construction plans for about 2,000 new settler homes. Palestinians condemned the settlement plans but have stopped short of threatening to walk out ahead of Wednesday's talks.
During a visit to Colombia, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, whose painstaking shuttle diplomacy got the talks restarted in Washington last month, urged the Palestinians "not to react adversely" to Israel's latest plans.
He said Israel's settlement steps "were to some degree expected" and urged the parties to move ahead with the talks.
"The United States of America views all of the settlements as illegitimate," Kerry said in Bogota.
Similar criticism was voiced by spokesmen for the European Union and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
Israel's settlement expansion plans, which officials say is intended for West Bank areas Israel would seek to keep under any peace deal, were an attempt to sweeten with far-right allies of Netanyahu the unpopular plan to free Palestinians convicted of killing Israelis.
Israel approved a list of the first 26 to be freed among a total of 104 it has already agreed to release in four stages. Protests by relatives of Israeli victims of the attacks for which the prisoners were convicted were not expected to keep the inmates from being freed.
LIMITED HAMAS PRAISE
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who has vowed to seek freedom for all Palestinian prisoners, gains a boost from the prisoner releases. The subject of prisoners is a highly charged issue in a society where thousands are held in Israeli custody.
Even Abbas's Islamist rival, Hamas, had some limited praise for the prisoners' expected release though also reiterating its objections to negotiating with Israel, a country whose existence Hamas rejects.
"Hamas welcomes the release of any hero prisoner from the jails of the occupation but no prisoner would accept conceding any inch of the land of Palestine as a price for his freedom," senior Hamas leader Khalil al-Hayya said in Gaza on Monday.
Some 500,000 Israeli settlers live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem amid 2.5 million Palestinians. Israel withdrew in 2005 from the Gaza Strip, now governed by Hamas Islamists opposed to permanent co-existence with the Jewish state.
Few expect the latest negotiations to resolve issues that have defied solution for decades, such as borders, settlements, Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees. The United States has said it seeks a peace deal within nine months.
With neighboring Egypt and Syria in upheaval and with Israel facing the threat of a potentially nuclear-armed Iran, Netanyahu decided he could ill afford to alienate the United States, and led his pro-settlement government into the talks.
(Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza, Warren Strobel in Bogota; Editing by Will Dunham)