JERUSALEM (AFP) – As senior Israeli and Palestinian envoys resumed long-stalled peace talks in Washington, Israeli media questioned the motives of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in taking to the negotiating table.
Israeli and Palestinian officials were meeting Tuesday in Washington for a second day of direct talks -- their first in three years. The State Department said they would continue for at least nine months.
Israel's chief negotiator, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, stressed the talks were resuming "not just in response to US pressure but because it's in the interest of both parties."
But commentators questioned Netanyahu's motives and what concessions he would be willing to make after his government approved the contentious release of long-serving Palestinian prisoners.
"The question is whether Netanyahu is happy with simply holding negotiations or if he really wants to reach a peace accord," public radio presenter Chico Menache said.
"It's difficult to know if he's ready to make territorial concessions on Israeli settlements," Menache said.
The last direct talks collapsed in September 2010 over continued Jewish settlement building in the occupied West Bank.
If Netanyahu is seen as pushing for peace to succeed, he will avoid the blame should the talks fail, according to public radio's political commentator Ronen Pollak.
Netanyahu is therefore moving "skillfully in order not to give the Palestinians an excuse to blow up the talks and blame Israel at the same time," Pollak said.
However, Hanan Cristal of public television disagreed that Netanyahu was putting in the minimum necessary effort.
"He's more ready than ever to plunge in headfirst," he said.
"But it remains to be seen whether he has the political means," he added, citing fierce opposition from some in the cabinet to the release of 104 Palestinian prisoners jailed before the 1993 Oslo accords, which was finally agreed to on Sunday.
Cristal warned that when it came to bigger issues, such as giving up Israeli settlements in the West Bank, opposition in cabinet could be too great.
Livni also recognised that disagreements within Israel's right-leaning governing coalition could pose an obstacle to any deal.
"There are ministers who don't want an agreement," she acknowledged.
Hardline ministers have openly opposed the creation of a Palestinian state and have pledged to continue building Jewish settlements on occupied Palestinian land.
Deputy foreign minister Zeev Elkin, a hawkish member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing Likud party, told public radio "any change (following a peace agreement) is not necessarily positive for Israel's security, and could make it worse."
"The Palestinians aren't ready to make the smallest concession," he charged.
The rightwing nationalist Jewish Home party, part of the ruling coalition, as well as some of Netanyahu's own Likud, voted against freeing the Palestinian prisoners, some of whom are jailed on terror charges.
Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon voted for their release, but reluctantly, according to the media.
Private Channel 10 also said Yaalon was pressing Netanyahu not to compromise on security issues during the peace process, urging him to maintain a full military presence in the Jordan Valley, deep inside the West Bank.
But Netanyahu's ace, argued Cristal, was public opinion.
A poll published Friday suggested a majority of Israelis would likely support a peace deal, which would go to a referendum if one were reached.
"Netanyahu could always bank on public opinion to counter those who would oppose any peace accord," he said.