Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has told US Secretary of State John Kerry that he fears his coalition could fall apart if Israel frees a 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 Saturday that US negotiators had told Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas Netanyahu feared his coalition, which includes the right-wing Jewish Home and Yisrael Beytenu parties, might disintegrate over the prisoner release.
Kerry and US special Middle East envoy Martin Indyk relayed Netanyahu’s fears to Abbas in order to convince him to accept the postponement of the prisoner release, the sources said. The US negotiators reportedly urged Abbas to agree to extend peace negotiations beyond the April 29 deadline before the 30 prisoners are released. Netanyahu has insisted agreement be reached for extending the talks before the prisoners can go free, and has ruled out releasing Israeli Arab inmates.
However, Abbas refused, insisting that the prisoners must be released before the Palestinian Authority can discuss prolonging the talks.
Meanwhile Saturday, a senior Palestinian official said the release by Israel of Arab prisoners would not go ahead on Saturday as envisaged but he hoped there would only be a short delay.
“Today the prisoners will not be released… maybe in the coming days,” Issa Qaraqae, the minister of prisoner affairs, told AFP.
“We have told the families of the prisoners that they will not be released today,” he added.”
“There are efforts to solve the crisis and I believe that in 24 hours everything will be clearer.”
Under the deal that relaunched peace talks last July, Israel agreed to release 104 Arabs held since before the 1993 Oslo peace accords in exchange for the Palestinians not pressing their statehood claims at the United Nations.
So far, Israel has freed 78 prisoners in three batches but ministers had warned they would block the final release, which had been anticipated for Saturday, if the Palestinians refused to extend the talks beyond their April 29 deadline.
There has been no official Israeli update on the last batch of prisoners, which the Palestinians want to include Arab Israeli citizens, a demand hotly opposed by Netanyahu’s far-right coalition partners and by hardliners within his own Likud party.
The cabinet convenes on Sunday morning for its weekly meeting. A special ministerial panel needs to approve any releases 48 hours before they go ahead, to leave time for petitions against the releases to the Supreme Court.
Palestinian official Jibril Rajoub, a member of Fatah’s central committee, told AFP Friday that “the Israeli government has informed us through the American mediator that it will not abide with its commitment to release the fourth batch of Palestinian prisoners scheduled for tomorrow, Saturday 29.”
The peace talks have been teetering on the brink of collapse, with Washington fighting an uphill battle to get the two sides to agree to a framework for continued negotiations until the end of the year.
Kerry met Abbas in Amman on Wednesday in a bid to salvage the talks, with US special envoy Martin Indyk meeting the Palestinian leader in Ramallah a day later.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki on Friday denied reports that negotiations had already collapsed.
“Any reports that suggest the talks are off are inaccurate,” she told journalists covering a visit to Saudi Arabia by Kerry and President Barack Obama.
“Ambassador Indyk and the negotiating team remain closely engaged with both parties on the ground and will continue to work over the coming days to help them bridge the gaps and determine the path forward.”
Israeli media say Netanyahu could give a green light to the prisoner release if the US frees Jonathan Pollard, who was arrested in Washington in 1985 and condemned to life imprisonment for spying on the United States for Israel.
Israel is not commenting on such reports, with Netanyahu spokesman Mark Regev saying only that in general the spy’s fate is “often raised at high-level meetings between Israelis and Americans.”
On Wednesday, Psaki said “there are currently no plans to release Jonathan Pollard.”