Israel and the Palestinians are keying up for a major battle over the coming two weeks regarding whether Israeli Arabs will be included in the next security prisoner release later this month.
Palestinian officials have said in recent days that they expect Israel to release Israeli Arabs in the final batch of 26 prisoners, who are set to go free on March 28. Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, however, made clear on Tuesday that all five Yisrael Beytenu cabinet ministers would vote against releasing Israelis convicted of terrorism if the idea came to the cabinet for a vote.
Under the framework agreement from last July that led to the current Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, Israel was to release 104 convicted terrorists in four stages. Israel has already released 78 prisoners, with one tranche left to go.
When the cabinet voted 13-7 in July, with two abstentions, to release the terrorists in order to move into the negotiations, there was a stipulation that while a committee of five ministers would be empowered to come up with the names for each batch, the list would have to come back to the cabinet for full approval if it contained names of Israelis.
Liberman’s announcement on Tuesday will make it more difficult for the list to pass the cabinet. The full cabinet does not, however, have to vote on it again if no Israelis are among those to be freed.
Israeli officials have said in recent weeks that although the Palestinians are pressing Israel to include Israeli Arabs, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu did not specifically commit himself to do so back in July. This position is supported in Washington.
Six Israeli Arabs went free in the Gilad Schalit prisoner release.
On Monday, Israel Radio quoted Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas as saying recently in private meetings that if Israel did not go through with the final prisoner release, it would constitute an abrogation of the framework agreement.
US Secretary of State John Kerry considers the final prisoner release a barometer of the negotiations’ progress, a State Department official told The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday.
If the cabinet fails to support the release, the fate of the peace process will likely be in jeopardy, the US official asserted. The US is preparing for that eventuality, but notes that the release is part of a deal already forged – not contingent upon a future agreement.
US officials’ Israeli counterparts have told them that the last release of prisoners, including some of the most heinous actors, would reap few returns given the dilapidated state of the talks.
Kerry is being strict with the parties, the official added, in demanding that they reach a framework for the continuation of negotiations within the original ninemonth time frame.
Voices have been raised recently – including that of Deputy Foreign Minister Ze’ev Elkin – saying that Israel should not go through with the final tranche unless the Palestinians commit themselves to continuing negotiations with Israel past the April 29 deadline for the talks.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu told the Likud-Beytenu faction that after recent Palestinian statements, “a deal is getting further away because of the Palestinians. They said this week that they will never recognize a Jewish state or give up the right of return. I won’t bring a deal that doesn’t cancel the right of return and doesn’t involve the Palestinians recognizing a Jewish state. These are just fundamental conditions. The Palestinians aren’t showing any sign of willingness to reach a practical and fair deal.”
Netanyahu was referring to a speech Abbas gave last Thursday in Ramallah, in which he said, “We shall never agree to recognize the Jewish state,” and insisted that the “five million Palestinian refugees and their offspring” will have the option of “returning” to Israel and “holding Israeli citizenship.”
Abbas is scheduled to meet with US President Barack Obama in the White House on Monday. One Israeli official said there was concern in Jerusalem that Abbas’s hard-line position was an effort to “tie his own hands before he meets Obama, and then go in and say that his hands are tied. This has been standard Palestinian operating procedure.”
Netanyahu is expected to raise this issue with British Prime Minister David Cameron, who is arriving on Wednesday for a 30-hour visit, and to impress upon him the need for the Europeans to pressure the Palestinians to – as one official said – “change their current behavior.”
“The Europeans have a role,” the official said. “If the Palestinians feel that their intransigence is costless, then what motivation do they have to change their intransigence? And here the Europeans have the ability to play a more effective role if the they desire to do so.”
In addition to meeting Netanyahu on Wednesday, Cameron – on his first visit to Israel since becoming prime minister in 2010 – is scheduled to meet with President Shimon Peres, address the Knesset and visit Yad Vashem. He will travel to Bethlehem and meet with Abbas on Thursday.
Michael Wilner in Washington and Gil Hoffman contributed to this report.