Diplomats: Netanyahu ready to release Palestinian prisoners

Sources involved in talks with John Kerry say move would coincide with Abbas agreeing to back down from preconditions and return to the negotiating table

Protesters call for the release of Palestinian prisoners during a demonstration in Ramallah in May. (photo credit: Issam Rimawi/Flash90)
Protesters call for the release of Palestinian prisoners during a demonstration in Ramallah in May. (photo credit: Issam Rimawi/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is prepared to release a limited number of Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas dropping the return to the ’67 lines as a precondition to resuming peace talks, diplomatic sources said Monday.

The sources, who took part in talks between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Netanyahu and Abbas, told Hebrew daily Maariv that Kerry was interested in granting both leaders political gains that would allow them to save face and return to the negotiating table.

The reciprocating steps would presumably allow both sides to present their constituents with tangible achievements. For Netanyahu, the release of prisoners, combined with the possible announcement of a construction freeze in West Bank settlements outside of the major blocs, could be presented as gestures to the Palestinians that don’t entail capitulating to their preconditions. For Abbas, the prisoner release — a highly sensitive issue on the Palestinian street — could be seen as a personal achievement of great magnitude that might justify resumption of negotiations.

The Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem declined to comment on the report.

The report came three days before Kerry is supposed to visit the region in continuing efforts to jump-start peace talks. According to the State Department, Kerry will visit Amman and Jerusalem to meet Israeli, Jordanian, and Palestinian officials during the three-day visit.

The diplomats described the developments as “meaningful progress” towards resuming peace talks, stressing that Kerry had postponed his visit to the region, which was originally scheduled to take place last week, precisely because he did not want to leave empty-handed, with both sides entrenched in their positions.

“These are critical days in the American effort to resume talks,” the sources said, stressing that the move would prevent a renewed Palestinian push for statehood at the UN and their following up on threats to go after Israel in the International Criminal Court.

According to the report, Israel’s Shin Bet security agency, the Justice Ministry, and the Prison Authority will start compiling a list of possible prisoners to release, within days. The release of prisoners, all of whom were arrested before the signing of the 1993 Oslo accords and deemed not to pose a security risk, is scheduled to coincide with the beginning of Islam’s Holy month of Ramadhan, which starts July 7.

Netanyahu last year offered to free 50 Palestinian security prisoners held since before the Oslo Accords of the early 1990s, in a bid to get Abbas to come back to the peace table, The Times of Israel reported two weeks ago. Abbas rejected the offer.

On Monday evening, Palestinian sources told Yedioth Ahronoth that Kerry plans to set up a joint meeting with Netanyahu and Abbas, though they estimated that the chances of such a meeting taking place in the near future are slim.

Also on Monday, Israel’s Channel 2 reported that Abbas had expressed interest in restarting peace negotiations with Israel, a report that was later denied by the PA.

Citing talk “in the corridors of Ramallah,” Channel 2’s Arab affairs correspondent Ehud Yaari reported that officials were hinting that Abbas was keen to talk, despite his preconditions for coming to the table not being met.

Negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians have been stalled since 2010, with Abbas demanding the release of Palestinian prisoners and a freeze on settlement construction as preconditions for restarting talks. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to not agree to any preconditions before returning to the table, while expressing readiness to discuss all issues when talks resume.

According to the TV report, sources in Jerusalem said that, from Israel’s point of view, the important development will not be seeing Abbas return to the negotiation table, but rather seeing him stay there.

Senior coalition partner Yesh Atid praised the news, saying “direct and courageous talks were the only way to solve the conflict,” according to a statement released Monday night.

In a recent interview with The Washington Post, Netanyahu made clear his willingness to negotiate immediately, and declared that “if [US] Secretary [of State John] Kerry, whose efforts we support, were to pitch a tent halfway between [Jerusalem] and Ramallah — that’s 15 minutes away, driving time — I’m in it, I’m in the tent.”

Aaron Kalman, Stuart Winer and Elhanan Miller contributed to this report

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