Israel would be committing “political blackmail” if it were to delay the final phase of the Palestinian security prisoner release, set to take place on March 29, the Palestinian Authority’s minister of prisoner affairs said Tuesday.
Issa Qaraqe also said that the release of prisoners as scheduled would serve to prove that Israel truly wished to reach a peace agreement, the Palestinian Ma’an news agency reported.
According to chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, American officials have assured Ramallah that Israel will release 30 security prisoners, completing the fourth phase of an Israeli commitment to release 104 inmates jailed before the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993. At least 14 of the 30 security prisoners hold Israeli ID cards and several more live in Jerusalem.
According to Ma’an, Qaraqe urged Israel to release sick, elderly and child prisoners as well.
Qaraqe further said that during a meeting in Washington on Monday, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas had requested of US President Barack Obama that he push for the release of jailed Fatah strongman Marwan Barghouti.
Barghouti is currently serving five life sentences after he was convicted of murdering multiple Israelis.
During a joint press conference with Obama on Monday, Abbas said that the release of security prisoners “will give a very solid impression about the seriousness of the Israelis on the peace process.”
A major effort is underway in Washington to make sure that both sides remain at the negotiating table even after the conclusion of the nine-month period originally designated for the talks. Abbas’s statement indicated that the release would be a critical factor in a decision to continue talks.
Earlier Tuesday, Economy Minister Naftali Bennett (Jewish Home) said that a release of Palestinian prisoners was unlikely at this point, since, according to him, the negotiations would most likely break down in the near future.
“Now that it is clear that there is no progress in negotiations and instead there are missiles and radicalization on Abbas’s part, I think it’s time for the government to reconsider the fourth phase [of the prisoner release],” Bennett told Army Radio.
Israeli ministers said last week that they would have difficulty approving the prisoner release if an agreement were not reached to extend the peace talks.