STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
News out of the Middle East this morning suggests at least a little progress in relations between Israelis and Palestinians. Expectations are low for peace talks, which the two sides reluctantly agreed to at the prodding Secretary of State John Kerry. Yet the two sides are taking what are called confidence-building steps, such as today's release of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails.
NPR's Jerusalem bureau chief Emily Harris is covering the story. She's on the line. Hi, Emily.
EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.
INSKEEP: How'd the release go?
HARRIS: Well, it went about like the previous release in August. Very early this morning, shortly after midnight, there were 21 Palestinian men bussed from Israeli prisons to the West Bank and five to Gaza. In the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority president Mahmood Abbas, and hundreds of supporters met these men for a celebration. There were similar scenes of celebration in Gaza, hoisting people on shoulders, chanting support. This is part - as you mentioned - of a bargain basically, between Israel and Palestinian officials - brokered by the U.S. to get peace talks going again. And 104 prisoners total are expected to be released over the nine month course of the talks.
INSKEEP: Aren't there a variety of reactions on both sides when you have a step like this?
HARRIS: It is especially controversial in Israel and this release has stirred up significant political divisions within the ruling cabinet. Every one of the Palestinians that was released was convicted in Israeli courts of killing Israeli citizens. There were protests outside of the prison this week with Israelis, you know, putting fake blood on their hands. They were fliers left in a military graveyard saying, you died in vain. And significantly for the government, a key member of Netanyahu's Cabinet called this immoral and tried to stop future prisoner releases. And people in Israel who are critical of the prisoner releases say that Israel is not getting anything out of it except for the chance to negotiate with the Palestinian side. In Palestinian politics, this is very welcome generally, and it may give the Palestinian Authority president Mahmood Abbas a bit of a boost showing that he can actually get something from Israel.
INSKEEP: OK. So with these prisoner releases you have the Israeli government paying a price, in effect, to see if they can get peace talks going. We don't know absolutely how the talks are going because they're supposed to take place in secret. But do any details leak out from time to time?
HARRIS: Well, there's some details leak out about what the team seems to be talking about at that time. But basically, no one has been willing to even hint that there's been progress in the talks. One Palestinian I spoke to, who is involved in the negotiations, would not go into any details. But he said that gaps haven't narrowed. The issues are very well known on both sides and there's been no coming closer, he said. However, I also spoke to a pollster who has been measuring Israeli public opinion about negotiations over the past two decades and she's found some shifts over time that she thinks her significant. For example, she found that people who identify, sort of, as soft right wing, not hard-liners, are willing now to imagine some kind of set up where governing Jerusalem is shared between Israel and a future Palestinian state. She also said the idea of a two-state solution, which was not supported by people along this part of the political spectrum has gained traction over time.
INSKEEP: So these talks are going forward. The confidence building measures are going forward. You're even seeing some signs of flexibility. Are there also signs of things that could derail these peace talks, Emily Harris?
HARRIS: There are always - as anyone will tell you here - things that could derail these peace talks. Violence is one. Since the talks started, three Israelis have been killed by Palestinians and at least six Palestinians have been killed by the Israeli military. This hasn't derailed the talks so far. Another really volatile issue that could potentially disrupt talks is Israel's continuing to build settlements - homes for Israelis - on land that Palestinians want as part of their future state. Following this prisoner release, the Israeli government announced the immediate construction of 1,500 more homes in East Jerusalem - which the Palestinians see as their future capital. And this was apparently in part to ease the criticism of the prisoner release.
INSKEEP: Help us understand that, Emily. What would settlements on the West Bank have to do with these Israeli prisoner releases?
HARRIS: Releasing prisoners who killed Israelis is difficult, politically, for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government. Announcing new Israeli housing starts in the areas that Palestinians claim as land for their future state is seen as a way to placate some of Israel's far right wing politicians. It's also seen as a way to advance Israel's strategic interest even as peace negotiations are going on.
INSKEEP: Emily, thanks as always.
HARRIS: Thank you, Steve.
INSKEEP: That's NPR's Emily Harris reporting this morning on an Israeli release of Palestinian prisoners. And you hear Emily right here on MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.