Israel will not release a fourth batch of 26 Palestinian security prisoners Saturday night as stipulated under the framework deal that led to the renewal of negotiations last July.
The five-minister committee chaired by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu that is empowered to choose which convicted terrorists will be released would need to have met on Wednesday to make a Saturday-night release possible.
The names must be made public 48 hours – not including Shabbat – prior to the prisoners going free in order to allow appeals to the High Court of Justice against the move.
No date for convening the committee was publicized.
The Prime Minister’s Office remained silent about whether Netanyahu intended to go ahead with the release. One official cited Justice Minister Tzipi Livni’s comment last week that there was never an “automatic commitment to release prisoners unrelated to making progress in negotiations,” and said that comment remained relevant.
“Things are fluid,” one official said, adding that this fluidity stemmed from Israel’s waiting to see if Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas – who met with US Secretary of State John Kerry for four hours in Jordan Wednesday night – would agree to continue the negotiations.
Netanyahu, however, could gain some political space if he decides to carry out the release, with the Likud's court postponing a key party conference originally scheduled for Monday night, until the end of May. This is significant for Netanyahu, because he did not want to go into the conference – where Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon is challenging his authority – against the backdrop of the prisoner release.
By late May, the release will likely be long gone.
The US administration exerted pressure on the PA leadership to agree to postpone the release of the final batch of prisoners, a senior Palestinian official said on Thursday. Under the terms of the US-brokered deal that got the sides back to the negotiation table in July, Israel was to release 104 terrorists convicted of crimes before the 1993 Oslo Accords, and the Palestinians were going to delay diplomatic moves in various international organizations to gain statehood status.
PA officials said that Abbas and Kerry are scheduled to hold another meeting next week. They said no progress had been achieved during their meeting, where the two men discussed extending peace talks until the end of the year.
US officials dubbed the talks “constructive,” however, and said Kerry would “remain engaged” with Abbas and Netanyahu in the coming days.
Kerry and Netanyahu speak on a daily basis, according to Israeli officials.
Fatah Central Committee member Mahmoud al-Aloul said Kerry had tried to persuade Abbas to agree to postpone the prisoner release until the end of April, when the nine-month deadline for the peace talks expires. Abbas rejected the idea.
Aloul added that the PA leadership was ready to go to international organizations and UN agencies, including the International Criminal Court, if Israel did not release the prisoners at the end of this month.
“The Palestinian leadership agreed to return to the peace talks with Israel at the request of the Americans in return for the release of 104 prisoners incarcerated before the signing of the Oslo Accords,” Aloul said. The Palestinians have “paid a heavy price by returning to the negotiations and delaying their plan to join international organizations and forums until the release of these prisoners.”
He said that the US administration’s failure to force Israel to fulfill its commitment to free the prisoners created the impression that Washington could not be an honest broker in the negotiations.
Issa Qaraqi, PA minister for prisoners affairs, warned that failure to release the prisoners at the end of this month would lead to unrest inside Israeli prisons.
“The prisoners have decided to launch protests if the fourth batch is not freed.
Also, we will hold mass rallies in support of the prisoners, and their families will wait for them outside Ofer Prison [near Ramallah],” Qaraqi said, speaking at a Ramallah rally in support of the prisoners.