Israel has offered to release a new group of 400 Palestinian security prisoners, in addition to the fourth and final group of longtime terrorism convicts who were set to go free this weekend, if the Palestinian Authority agrees to extend peace talks for another six months, The Times of Israel learned from Palestinian sources on Saturday night. The US, anxious to arrange for the continuation of the talks, backed the offer.
Some sources claimed Israel was holding off on freeing the prisoners because of rumors that the PA would back out of peace talks once the fourth round of convicts were released.
As of Saturday evening, however, PA President Mahmoud Abbas was insisting that the fourth group of longtime prisoners first be released before he would consider extending the talks beyond their current April 29 deadline.
Israel has refused to free the final group of some 26 prisoners, whom the PA insists must include several Israeli Arabs, unless Abbas first agrees to extend the talks. Israel has also balked at releasing Israeli Arabs.
Under the new Israeli offer, Israel would determine which additional 400 security prisoners would go free, the sources said. Israel is said to be holding close to 5,000 Palestinian security prisoners.
Jewish Home’s Uri Ariel, the minister of housing and construction, was said to be ready to recommend that his right-wing party leave the coalition if the release of the extra prisoners goes through.
Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz, a member of Netanyahu’s own Likud party, told Israel Radio Saturday night that he was against the release of all further prisoners, and that moves to free them should be stopped immediately, particularly “since there hasn’t been any forward movement in the peace process.”
The Minister of Prisoners in the PA, Issa Karake, on Saturday night urged Abbas to leave the negotiations and instead take the cause of Palestinian statehood to the UN and other international organizations if Israel does not release the fourth group of prisoners within the next few days.
State Department Spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Saturday night: “In regard to reports this evening on an agreement on the release of prisoners, no deal has been arrived at, and we continue to work intensively with both sides. Any claims to the contrary are inaccurate.”
Meanwhile, US Special Envoy for Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations Martin Indyk met with chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat and Israel’s envoy to the peace talks, Yitzhak Molcho, in Jerusalem Saturday night. Erekat was quoted by Army Radio saying he believed the deadlock would be broken, and the fourth group of prisoners would go free early in the coming week.
Earlier Saturday, it was reported that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has told US Secretary of State John Kerry that he fears his coalition could fall apart if Israel frees the fourth batch of Palestinian prisoners who were slated for release this weekend — among them 14 Israeli Arabs.
Citing sources in the Palestinian Authority, the London-based pan-Arab al-Hayat newspaper reported that US negotiators had told Abbas Netanyahu feared his coalition, which includes the right-wing Jewish Home and Yisrael Beytenu parties, might disintegrate over the prisoner release.