Israeli-Palestinian Talks Progressing, Despite Sore Spots

Secretary of State John Kerry says Israeli and Palestinian negotiators have met 13 times — that's a hair over once a week if you count from August 13, the first day they sat down together in this part of the world since Kerry announced the restart of talks. What true progress has been made is difficult to judge, but some things are clear. Settlements are a continuing sore point for Palestinians. The Jordan Valley will be fought over for both its economic and security value. Some Israeli lawmakers are trying to tie the government's hands, while others have gone to Ramallah to show support. And nobody knows what to do about Hamas.

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In a few hours, Israel will release 26 Palestinian men from prison. These are men who were jailed for attacks that killed Israelis in the 1980s and early '90s. They're being freed before they finish serving their full sentences. The release of these prisoners is part of a deal to resume peace talks with the Palestinians.

NPR's Emily Harris reports.

EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: Riyad Aweidah knows what it's like to be in an Israeli prison. The 58-year-old Palestinian man was jailed three times over three decades, he's eager to pay homage to the men being released now.

RIYAD AWEIDAH: I hope that I can go to visit every one of them. Because I really respect them and I hope that all the prisoners to be outside the jail.

HARRIS: In Israel, freeing Palestinians who killed Israelis is creating a political firestorm. Israel's economy minister, Naftali Bennett, called it immoral. He introduced a measure over the weekend to stop future prisoner releases. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's party voted down the proposal, but the split reflects rising tensions within Israel's fragile coalition.

Netanyahu agreed to release the prisoners as a concession to the Palestinian Authority in order to restart peace talks. Now three months in, Israel has said little about how negotiations are going. A senior negotiator on the Palestinian team, Mohammed Shtayyeh, says he can't cite any progress yet.

MOHAMMED SHTAYYEH: The Israeli position is clear and our position is clear. There has not been really serious narrowing of gaps.

HARRIS: He says Palestinians will be the major beneficiaries if a comprehensive agreement can be reached. But he says hard-line Israeli politicians undermine the process.

SHTAYYEH: We have serious problem with some Israeli ministers. Because either everybody in the Cabinet is on board. Or at least those who are not on board from the Israeli different coalition partners, they should not speak against it. And these people, every day, they go to different Jewish settlements here and there. And they speak against the process.

HARRIS: One Israeli minister said today that releasing Palestinian prisoners was better strategically for Israel than stopping settlement construction on the West Bank - another Palestinian demand that Israel rejected. In a speech last week, Finance Minister Yair Lapid tried to reframe the debate.

YAIR LAPID: The problem is not technical. And the problem - and I know this is blasphemy now - is not even with the Israeli settlements or with the Palestinian terror. The problem is about fear. The problem is about mistrust. The problem is this is not a real dialogue but two monologues.

HARRIS: Even, he suggested, at the negotiation table.

LAPID: The Israelis wants peace and security. But and the Palestinians wants peace and justice. It sounds similar, but this is a whole different set of the feelings and emotions.

HARRIS: Israeli pollster Tamar Hermann says the Jewish public here ranks the importance of the peace talks pretty low; fifth out of seven issues people want the government to prioritize.

TAMAR HERMANN: On the upper priorities we see mainly socioeconomic issues: Closing the socio-economic gap, stabilizing the Israeli economy. And there are two interpretations for that, either because they don't think that anything good will come out of it. And second, maybe they do not see the Palestinian issue anymore as a strategic threat to Israel.

HARRIS: Hermann has run a monthly poll for the past two decades measuring Israeli attitudes toward the peace process. One change she's noticed is just about terminology. People don't respond favorably to the phrase peace process, she says. But the word negotiations gets much more support.

Emily Harris, NPR News, Jerusalem.

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