Jerusalem: Israel and the Palestinians are to hold their first direct talks in almost three years on Wednesday, overshadowed by a deepening rift over settlements and following the release of 26 Palestinian prisoners.
The resumption of the fragile peace negotiations comes just hours after the release of the prisoners as a confidence-building gesture, and a day after Israeli authorities announced the approval of 942 new settler homes in annexed east Jerusalem, provoking Palestinian fury.
Jerusalem city authorities said that although it had only now granted final approval for the new homes in Gilo, an existing settlement in east Jerusalem, they had been in the works for years.
On the weekend, Israel`s housing ministry announced tenders for the construction of 793 settlement housing units in annexed east Jerusalem and 394 elsewhere in the West Bank.
Senior Palestine Liberation Organisation official Yasser Abed Rabbo said the "unprecedented" announcements threatened to make the talks "fail even before they`ve started".
The last peace talks broke down in 2010 over the issue of settlement building.
In a bid to defuse the crisis, US Secretary of State John Kerry, whose dogged shuttle diplomacy brought about the first round of talks in Washington two weeks ago, phoned Abbas late yesterday, a senior source told a news agency.
"The call Abbas received tonight from Kerry is part of ongoing US efforts to defuse a crisis before the talks (begin), as a result of the new settlement tenders today and in the last few days," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"We are waiting for the United States to take a clear stance on the escalating settlement building, which we consider the biggest obstacle that Israel is creating to stop serious talks from happening."
Abbas`s office also confirmed he had received a phone call from Kerry "to discuss developments in the peace process, on the eve of the resumption of negotiations".
A few hours before the expected start of today`s talks, Israel freed 26 Palestinian prisoners.
A group of 15 crossed into the Gaza Strip at about 1:40 am (2240 GMT) and were mobbed by relatives as they got out of a bus next to the border.
At about the same time, another 11 prisoners arrived in the West Bank city of Ramallah to a welcome from Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas and thousands of cheering, dancing supporters.
"This is the first group," Abbas told the crowd at an official welcoming ceremony at his Muqataa headquarters compound.
"We shall continue until we free all the prisoners from Israeli jails," he said.
The 26 were the first batch of some 104 long-term detainees who are to be freed in stages as part of a US-brokered deal which brought Israel and the Palestinians back to the negotiating table on July 30 for the first time in nearly three years.