Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last year offered to free 50 Palestinian security prisoners who have been held since before the Oslo Accords of the early 1990s, in a bid to get Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to come back to the peace table, The Times of Israel has learned.
However, Abbas rejected the offer.
Today, a senior Palestinian official told The Times of Israel, the Palestinians might agree to renew talks with Israel if Netanyahu releases all 107 of the pre-Oslo veterans still in jail, most of whom have blood on their hands.
The Prime Minister’s Office had no comment on the matter.
The Palestinian official’s comments came as US Secretary of State John Kerry prepared to head back to the region for his fifth visit in four months, as he bids to cajole Netanyahu and Abbas to return to the negotiating table.
The Palestinian official, who asked not to be named, is one of Abbas’s close associates. He said that the release of all the pre-Oslo “veterans” is a “strategic” requirement for the PA. Choosing his words carefully, he said their release could prove sufficient to bring the PA back to the peace table, but he refused to say so explicitly, and could not rule out additional Palestinian conditions. In the past, Abbas has indicated that he would not return to the talks while Israel continued building new settlement homes, and figures released on Sunday showed a sharp rise in building starts at settlements in the first three months of this year.
In the course of previous efforts to get the asides back to the table, The Times of Israel has learned, Netanyahu expressed willingness to release 50 of the long-serving prisoners arrested before the Oslo Accords. The Israeli proposal was to free the 50 in three stages: 25 prisoners, then 15, then 10. These releases were contingent on a resumption not merely of talks between the two sides, but of direct meetings by Abbas with Netanyahu.
However, the Palestinians rejected the idea. According to senior Palestinian sources, the release of only 50 prisoners of the pre-Oslo security prisoners was unacceptable, and all had to go free.
The contacts over this proposal were conducted by the head of the PLO negotiating team, Saeb Erekat, and the prime minister’s special envoy for talks with the Palestinians, Yitzhak Molcho. Messages were also sent to Jordan’s King Abdullah, whose kingdom hosted various talks between Israel and the PA. At one point, a special representative from Netanyahu went to Amman to the present the Israeli proposal to the king.
Prior to the offer of 50 releases, Israel had offered to release smaller numbers of the pre-Oslo veterans. Israel’s initial proposal was to free only five or six prisoners, but that number went up over time. A later proposal was to free 25 prisoners in several phases, again conditioned on direct Netanyahu-Abbas meetings, with five more prisoners to go free after each such meeting.
Abbas, for his part, did agree to meet with Netanyahu — but only if all pre-Oslo prisoners were released, and not as part of resumed peace talks. Rather, Abbas was willing to meet Netanyahu, after all the prisoners were freed, in order to make clear to Netanyahu, face-to-face, his terms for restarting the negotiations.
It is understood that the Israeli security establishment has no objections on security grounds to the release of the 107 pre-Oslo veterans, particularly in light of the release of 1,027 Palestinian security prisoners to Hamas as part of the deal that saw the release of kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit from Hamas captivity in Gaza in October 2011.