Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office on Saturday said that Israel is not obligated to release Arab Israelis as part of the deal to restart peace talks with the Palestinians under which it is freeing 104 longtime terror convicts.
According to Ynet, Netanyahu’s media advisor said that “Israel did not commit at any stage to release Arab Israelis.” At the same time, The Prime Minister’s Office denied that Netanyahu was behind recent reports which claimed he has told Kerry he won’t release Israeli Arabs imprisoned for terrorism offenses. Rather, the PMO said, any decision on the matter would have to go before the cabinet.
Israel has historically refused to let the Palestinians have any say in the fate of Israeli Arab citizens, regarding such persons as being solely an Israeli responsibility.
Late Monday, Israel released 26 Palestinian prisoners in the third phase of a four-stage prisoner release, agreed on when US-arbitrated peace talks were renewed last summer. According to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, the final 26 prisoners, to be released in March, will include 14 Israeli Arabs and East Jerusalemites with Israeli residency.
Channel 2 reported last week that Netanyahu had agreed with Kerry, when they were finalizing terms for a resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in the summer, that Israel would free 82 Palestinian prisoners in a series of phased releases, and that Israel would not include any Israeli Arab convicts among those to be freed. And yet when Abbas demanded, in his own separate meetings with Kerry, that 104 prisoners be released, and that Israeli Arab terrorist convicts be among those set free, “Kerry did not correct him,” the report said, presumably because he did not want to scupper the talks.
Conflicting reports last month said Kerry raised the issue of spy-for-Israel Jonathan Pollard in this context, offering either to free Pollard or at least to check into whether Pollard could go free. The US has denied any intention to release Pollard.
Should Israel agree to release the 14 Arab Israelis as part of peace talks with the Palestinians, the Prime Minister’s Office said that such a procedure would require cabinet approval.