A reported offer from Israel to free up to 400 more prisoners in exchange for an extension of the peace talks with the Palestinians was panned by right-wing members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government on Sunday morning.
The US-approved offer, reported by The Times of Israel on Saturday, would see Jerusalem release an additional 400 prisoners, to be chosen by Israel, if Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas agrees to continue the talks past the current April 29 deadline, according to Palestinian sources familiar with the negotiations.
The offer to release additional Palestinians prisoners was confirmed by a senior Israeli official quoted in the Haaretz daily on Sunday, who said that the Palestinians must agree to extend the talks for several months and pledge not to take independent steps at the UN in exchange.
The new releases would not include Arab-Israelis, the source stressed, who said the offer demonstrated that “Israel was willing to be flexible” in order to extend the talks.
Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, who heads the nationalist Jewish Home Party, said he would not allow the release of 400 prisoners to go forward.
“Let me be clear: This will not happen,” he wrote on Facebook Sunday morning, adding that had received hundreds of inquiries about the deal.
Reports have indicated that Jewish Home’s 12 MKs may leave the coalition should Israel free more prisoners, including a batch of about 26 Palestinian inmates who were supposed to be released at the end of March as per an original understanding between Jerusalem and Ramallah at the start of peace talks in August.
The release was to include 14 Israeli-Arab citizens, which has caused consternation among some members of the government.
Israel has refused to release the 26 unless talks, which are due to end in April, are extended.
Deputy Foreign Minister Ze’ev Elkin (Likud) said that Israel should not release more prisoners, and added that Israel was interested in continuing the talks but the Palestinians haven’t “moved a millimeter” in their positions.
Elkin, speaking to Israel Radio, dismissed the idea of releasing prisoners in exchange for further negotiations as “a strange thing in the world,” and decried the Obama administration’s approval of the release.
The US has been steadfast in refusing to release long-serving spy for Israel Jonathan Pollard, an American citizen, yet expects Israel to release its own citizens in exchange for extended talks, he charged.
Deputy Minister Ofir Akunis (Likud) echoed Elkin, telling Israel Radio that the party wanted “real” peace talks, but that the release of 400 prisoners was “unacceptable.”
Opposition MK Eitan Cabel of the dovish Labor Party said that he was against the expanded release, but called on the government to free the 26 prisoners already agreed to.
There are “no real negotiations” happening now, Cabel told Israel Radio, blaming both Israeli and Palestinian intransigence.
MK Dov Khenin of Hadash noted that the whole reason Israel agreed to a series of prisoner releases was because the government had refused the Palestinians’ initial offer of initiating a construction freeze in the settlements as a condition for resuming talks, and so was forced to offer another concession.
“There are those in the government who are very happy the negotiations are in trouble,” Khenin said, and added that the government had an international obligation to go through with the prisoners release on Saturday, which it failed to follow through on.
Ramallah has threatened to turn to international bodies for recognition should talks break down.
Abbas has already has had the various paperwork prepared for Palestinian applications to further UN institutions, Haaretz reported Sunday.
According to Palestinian sources cited by Haaretz, Abbas has the documents waiting on his desk, but will wait “a few days” before signing them.