RAMALLAH — A senior Palestinian official said a release by Israel of Arab prisoners would not go ahead on Saturday as envisaged but he hoped there would only be short delay.
“Today the prisoners will not be released… maybe in the coming days,” Issa Qaraqe, the minister of prisoner affairs, told AFP.
“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.
Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas has not spelled out his terms for prolonging talks, saying only that he is not even prepared to discuss the issue until the prisoners are freed.
There has been no official Israeli update on the last batch of prisoners. The Palestinians want it to include Arab Israeli citizens, a demand hotly opposed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-right coalition partners and by hardliners within his own Likud party.
The cabinet convenes on Sunday morning for its weekly meeting.
Palestinian official Jibril Rajub, 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.”
Rajub called the Israeli move a “slap in the face of the US administration and its efforts,” and said the Palestinians would resume their international diplomatic offensive against Israel as a consequence.
“Not releasing the prisoners will mark the beginning of the efforts in the international community to challenge the legality of the occupation,” he said.
Prisoner release ‘crucial’ issue
A poll published Saturday by the Palestinian Centre for Public Opinion said 87 percent of those surveyed believed the Palestinian leadership should renew its UN efforts if the prisoners are not freed.
The prisoner release “is a prerequisite for any future progress of the negotiations,” the centre said, as the overwhelming majority of Palestinians consider it to be “the most crucial issue that must be treated in order to continue with the peace process.”
The 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.
US Secretary of State John 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.
On Friday, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki denied reports that negotiations had already collapsed.
“Any reports that suggest the talks are off are inaccurate,” she told journalists.
“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.”
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