The first session of the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks began Wednesday evening in Jerusalem's King David Hotel.
Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat are representing their respective sides.
U.S. envoy Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, is chairing the meeting. A second working session is planned for "later this month" in the West Bank city of Jericho.
In the hours leading up to Wednesday's opening session, signs were not good for a successful conclusion to the talks.
Possibly with encouragement from the U.S., Israel agreed to release a proposed 104 Palestinian prisoners currently held in its military prison. This action made it difficult for the Palestinian Authority to stay away from the talks.
The release of prisoners was resisted within the Israeli public, which is still chafing over the release of 1,027 Palestinian prisoners in 2011 in exchange for Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier held for five years by Hamas.
To demonstrate that Israel was in no danger of giving away the store, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced on the eve of the talks that the Israeli goverment would issue 2,000 housing permits for construction in existing Israeli settlements on Palestinian land.
The first 26 Palestinian prisoners who were released Tuesday night were all arrested, charged and imprisoned by military courts at some point between 1985 and 2001
Palestinian released prisoners are well aware they will not be entirely free. They remain in constant danger of being returned to prison at the slightest provocation.
Mairav Zonszein, a Jewish journalist who moved from New York to Israel, is blunt in her assessment of the prisoner release:
"Releasing Palestinian prisoners is primarily symbolic -- considering that Israel remains the controlling power, choosing who and when it releases and re-arresting as it pleases, whenever it pleases."- Advertisement -
At the same time it announced the names of the first prisoners to be released, Israel displayed a disdain for the talks by announcing new construction in a wide range of settlements.
Zonszein, who writes for the Israeli liberal 972 website, provides the sordid details:
"Something like 2,000 new units in the West Bank and East Jerusalem -- some in final approval stages before building begins and others at the start of the tender process -- have been announced in the last few weeks. The construction published today enumerates 400 new units in Gilo, 210 in Har Homa and 183 Pisgat Ze'ev -- all settlements beyond the Green Line in East Jerusalem. In the West Bank, it was made up of 117 units in Ariel, 149 in Efrat, 92 in Ma'aleh Adumim and 36 in Beitar Ilit."
With details like these, it should be obvious that plans for this new settlement building were developed over a long period of time. The government's formal announcement was timed to assuage the right-wing politicians who strongly oppose the release of Palestinian prisoners, an old political tactic of releasing good and bad news on the same day.