U.S. says Mideast peace talks resume

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JERUSALEM -- The United States announced the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian talks Sunday following years of stalemate, after Israel's cabinet agreed, reluctantly, to release 104 Palestinian prisoners convicted of deadly attacks.

The return to direct contacts between the sides gives Secretary of State John Kerry his first concrete achievement after months of shuttle diplomacy.

The United States said preliminary talks would begin today, but it remains unclear whether they will lead to a formal resumption of the peace talks that broke down in 2008.

Despite a return to the table, neither side appeared upbeat. Each has blamed the other for the lack of success in 20 years of negotiations, interrupted by bouts of violence.

The Israeli cabinet voted 13-7, with two abstentions, earlier Sunday to approve in principle the release of 104 Palestinian prisoners. The release is a key part of the Kerry-brokered deal to restart the talks.

The State Department said Kerry called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas after the cabinet vote and invited them to send teams to Washington.

State Department spokeswoman Jan Psaki said the teams would meet today and Tuesday to "develop a procedural plan for how the parties can proceed with the negotiations in the coming months." Talks on a final peace deal are to last six to nine months.

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat and Abbas aide Mohammed Shtayyeh will represent the Palestinians, and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and adviser Yitzhak Molcho will attend for Israel.

Netanyahu, seeking to overcome stiff opposition from ultranationalists, told his cabinet that "resuming the political process at this time is important for Israel," noting that any deal would be submitted to a national referendum. Erekat welcomed the vote on the prisoners as a "step toward peace," one he said is long overdue.

Negotiators made progress in previous rounds, and the outlines of a deal have emerged: a Palestinian state in most of the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, lands captured by Israel in 1967, with border adjustments to enable Israel to annex land with a majority of nearly 600,000 settlers.

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Those negotiations broke down, however, before the sides could tackle the most explosive issues, a partition of Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees and their descendants, now several million people.

Abbas remains leery of negotiating with Netanyahu, fearing any offer made by the hard-liner would fall far short of Palestinian demands, so he has insisted on a clear framework for negotiations.

Abbas said Kerry had assured him the invitation to the negotiators will say border talks are based on the 1967 line, though Netanyahu has not said whether he has dropped his long-standing opposition to that demand.

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