Israel’s chief negotiator with the Palestinians on Tuesday cast doubt on whether a scheduled release of Palestinian prisoners would take place at the end of the month, threatening to plunge the already fraught US-led peace talks into a new crisis.
Israel agreed to the release of 104 long-serving Palestinian prisoners in four stages as part of a package to relaunch peace talks last July. But after carrying out the first three releases, negotiator Tzipi Livni said, the last group would be released only if there is progress in negotiations.
Speaking to a conference on Tuesday, Livni, who is also Israel’s justice minister, said Jerusalem had never committed to the prisoner release. “The key to the prison where the Palestinian prisoners are being held” is in the hands of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, she maintained.
The fate of the roughly 5,000 Palestinian security prisoners is extremely emotional in Israel, where the prisoners are seen as terrorists because many were involved in bloody attacks on civilians. Prisoners freed in previous rounds had been convicted in grisly killings of Israelis, and their releases angered many. Israel also objects to the Palestinian demand that Arab citizens of Israel be included in the final round.
The issue is equally emotional in Palestinian society after decades of fighting Israel. Palestinians view the inmates as heroes, and prisoners freed in previous rounds were embraced by Abbas and welcomed in elaborate celebrations.
“In order to promote serious negotiations we all have to make decisions and prove that our faces are toward a real peace agreement,” Livni said. “The proof of that rests on the Palestinian shoulders as well.”
Livni’s comments came at a sensitive time in the negotiations. US Secretary of State John Kerry has set an April target date for reaching a preliminary framework peace deal that would set the stage for months of additional talks to wrap up an agreement.
But after nearly eight months of negotiations, there have been no indications that progress is being made, and the dispute over the prisoner release could snarl prospects for an extension to the looming deadline.
Senior Israeli officials, quoted by the Makor Rishon daily’s diplomatic correspondent on Twitter, said that “without an explicit commitment by [Abbas] to extend the talks, there will not be a fourth wave” of releases.
Earlier on Tuesday, Economy Minister Naftali Bennett (Jewish Home party), who has been outspoken in his objection to the formation of a Palestinian state, said that a release of Palestinian prisoners was unlikely at this point, since, according to him, the negotiations would most likely break down soon.
“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.
But the Palestinian minister of prisoner affairs, Issa Karake, indicated that releasing the prisoners was a Palestinian condition for the extension of talks, saying that “if they (Israel) don’t release them they will be foiling the whole peace process.”
Israel would be committing “political blackmail” if it were to delay the final phase, Karake said.
According to chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, American officials have assured Ramallah that Israel will release 30 security prisoners, completing the fourth phase of its commitment to release 104 inmates jailed before the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993. At least 14 of the 30 security prisoners, he indicated, hold Israeli ID cards and several more live in Jerusalem.
At a meeting with US President Barack Obama at the White House on Monday, Abbas expressed hope the prisoners would go free. He said that the release by the planned March 29 date would make a “solid impression” that Israel is serious about peace.
Karake further said that during a meeting in Washington on Monday, Abbas had requested of Obama that he push for the release of jailed Fatah strongman Marwan Barghouti, who is serving out five life sentences over his part in orchestrating deadly attacks against Israelis.
The talks have run into trouble over other issues as well. The Palestinians have refused Israel’s demand that they recognize it as the homeland of the Jewish people. Israel, meanwhile, has rejected Palestinian demands to commit to basing the borders of a future Palestinian state on lands captured in 1967. It also rejects the Palestinian demand to establish a capital in East Jerusalem.
In Washington on Monday, US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Israel and the Palestinians were at “a tough period, a pivotal period of the negotiations.”
Asked whether she shared Abbas’s hope that the prisoner release would take place, she said, “Certainly, because it’s part of what was agreed to between the parties. We would support the prisoner release, of course.”
“We’re all familiar with the fact that the next tranche of prisoner releases is at the end of March. There obviously is pressure around that timeline,” Psaki said. “But again, we’re working day by day on this.”
AFP contributed to this report.