Conflicting American messages to Israel and the Palestinians surrounding the release of pre-Oslo Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails contributed to the crisis currently facing talks, an Israeli source knowledgeable about the negotiations said on Monday, a day before the talks were set to expire.
Speaking to journalists in Jerusalem on condition of anonymity, the Israeli source said the office of US Secretary of State John Kerry had assured Palestinian negotiators that Arab Israeli citizens would be included in the deal to release 104 prisoners convicted for serious security crimes prior to the signing of the Oslo Accords in September 1993. Israel, however, never gave such a commitment to the Americans.
“The deal regarding negotiations was not discussed bilaterally [between Israel and the Palestinians], but between the US and each of the parties, in two back-to-back deals,” the source said. “It soon became apparent that these deals are incompatible with each other. There were discrepancies in the way each of the parties understood the deal. I believe ultimately that was one of the sources of problems we had at the end of the nine-month [negotiating period].”
Israel had committed to release the prisoners as a goodwill measure parallel to negotiations, in return for Palestinian abstention from applying for admission to international organizations and treaties as a “nonmember state” in the UN.
According to the source, the discrepancy between the Israeli and Palestinian understandings of the deal revolved around “the number of prisoners, the identity of prisoners… Most importantly, Israel never committed to releasing 14 Israeli citizens, while the Palestinians understood from the US that they were part of the deal. That created a huge problem… that’s why [Israeli-American spy Jonathan] Pollard was inserted into this, because the Israeli government said ‘there’s no way we can secure a majority in the government for a deal releasing Israeli citizens… unless there’s a tiebreaker, which would be Mr. Pollard.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his cabinet last July — ahead of talks — that any release of Israeli prisoners would be brought to a second government vote. The Palestinians, for their part, understood from the start that Kerry would vouch for the release of Israelis.
“There were other differences. The Palestinians wanted to determine the list [of names] and Israel’s deal was that we determine the list of those released.”
Israel sought to deport a number of released prisoners from their hometowns upon release, based on intelligence information indicating they posed a danger. Meanwhile, the Palestinians understood from the Americans that all prisoners would be released home.
All of this confusion, the source indicated, was largely the responsibility of the American administration.
‘I don’t want to come out saying that the US is to blame… but the US is part of it’
“I don’t want to come out saying that the US is to blame. It is first and foremost the parties themselves. But the US is part of it, and they can’t just say that the crisis on March 29 [when Israel did not release the prisoners] was the responsibility of one party. I think there’s more than one party that played here, including the United States,” he said.
“Israel never committed to releasing the Israeli citizens, but Palestinians were promised by Secretary Kerry that they would be part of the deal.”
As March 29, the date of the final prisoner release came closer, Israel and the Palestinians were engaged in intensive talks with the US in a bid to extend negotiations for an additional period beyond their April 29 deadline.
According to the Israeli source, “The Palestinians said: ‘We will not give an answer regarding extending negotiations by an additional nine months before we know that Israel will release the prisoners.’ Israel said: ‘We are not going to convene the cabinet to make that decision unless we know that the Palestinians are on board for a deal to extend negotiations.'”
The source explained that the Israeli government did not want to find itself in a situation in which “we release these people and a month later they take us to the International Criminal Court.”
Israel, he said, was willing to vote on releasing the remaining prisoners, to “significantly restrain” settlement construction in the West Bank, and to release an additional 400 Palestinian prisoners “without blood on their hands.” All the Palestinians had to do was commit to not join international treaties and organization during the extended negotiating period. Instead, they joined 15 UN conventions on April 2.
‘Israel never committed to releasing the Israeli citizens, but Palestinians were promised by Secretary Kerry that they would be part of the deal’
The source accused senior Palestinian official Saeb Erekat of planning the international accession bid in advance, using the delay in the prisoner release as an excuse. If Palestinians wanted to combat corruption or protect women’s rights through the international treaties they joined, why not draft national legislation? he wondered.
“I think the idea was more political than anything else,” he said.
The timing of an Israeli call for building tenders in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo on April 1 also damaged trust between the sides, the source admitted.
Nevertheless, Israel and the Palestinians returned to the table in April, trying to renegotiate the conditions of an extension. Unlike the past five months, some talks were bilateral, with the US out of the room for part of the sessions.
The night before Hamas and Fatah signed a reconciliation deal April 23, Israelis and Palestinians had a successful meeting in Jerusalem, where new ideas were raised on extending negotiations, he said.
“The general feeling was that we’re finally on track, and we may do it. The sides agreed to meet the next day, and then came the agreement between Fatah and Hamas,” he said. “And here we are, in a deep crisis, with no talks between the parties.”