Israel won’t release additional Palestinian prisoners without receiving something of value in return, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday, addressing a weekend report that Jerusalem had offered to free up to 400 additional long-serving prisoners in exchange for Palestinians agreeing to continue talks past their April 29 deadline.
The prisoner issue will be resolved within a few days, when it “will be closed or it will blow up,” Netanyahu said, addressing a meeting of lawmakers, many of whom are opposed to releasing prisoners, held before the regular weekly cabinet meeting.
“In any case, there won’t be any deal without receiving something of clear value [in return],” the prime minister added.
Any deal involving a further prisoner release would be brought to the government for approval, Netanyahu added, and said the deliberations around the prisoners release could go on for several days.
President Shimon Peres said Sunday that in his estimation there would be developments in the peace talks by Sunday evening or Monday morning, and added that both sides were working hard to overcome the obstacles. Peres addressed the controversy from Vienna, where he was beginning a three-day state visit in Austria.
On Saturday, Jerusalem refused to release a batch of about 26 Palestinian inmates who were supposed to be set free 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.
On Saturday, it was reported by The Times of Israel that Israel had offered to release up to 400 prisoners, to be chosen by Israel, in exchange for an extension of the talks and a pledge by the Palestinians not to take unilateral action at the UN.
With the talks teetering on the brink of collapse, Washington has been fighting an uphill battle to coax the two sides into accepting a framework proposal which would extend the negotiations beyond April to the end of the year.
But the matter has become tied up with the fate of the veteran Palestinian prisoners whom Israel was to have freed this weekend under terms of an agreement which brought about a resumption of talks.
Israel on Friday informed the Palestinians via a US mediator that it would not release the fourth and final batch of prisoners, with the US State Department confirming it was working “intensively” to resolve the dispute.
The Palestinians say they will not even consider extending the talks without the prisoners being freed, but Israel has refused to release them without a Palestinian commitment to continue the talks, prompting a fresh crisis of confidence between the parties.
Issa Karawe, the Palestinian prisoners minister, on Saturday told AFP that the crisis was likely to be resolved quickly.
“There are efforts to solve the crisis and I believe that in 24 hours everything will be clearer,” he said.
Under a deal that relaunched peace talks last July, Israel agreed to release 104 prisoners held since before the 1993 Oslo peace accords in exchange for the Palestinians freezing all efforts to seek further international recognition.
So far, Israel has freed 78 of them in three batches, and the last group was to have been released on March 29.
AFP contributed to this report.