After Israel missed the deadline Saturday to release the fourth and final batch of Palestinian prisoners, seemingly putting peace talks in danger of collapse, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said Sunday that haggling on the issue could go on for "a number of days."
Speaking at a meeting of Likud ministers, Netanyahu said that Israel would not make a deal to free the prisoners "without a clear benefit for Israel in return." He acknowledged that negotiations to come to an agreement could potentially "blow up."
Israel said it is willing to release a fourth batch of convicted Palestinian terrorists, but not if the Palestinians say that they will end the negotiations directly after the release, a highly-placed Israeli official said Saturday night.
The official, familiar with the negotiations, said “Israel wants to see the continuation of the peace talks with the Palestinians, and is willing to implement the fourth release of convicted terrorists. But the Palestinians are making that very difficult when they say that immediately following the release, they will end the talks.”
In order to move back to the negotiations table, Israel agreed in July to release 104 terrorists
convicted of crimes before the the 1993 Oslo accords in four tranches of 26 prisoners each. In return the Palestinians agreed not to pursue unilateral diplomatic actions in international forums, including taking Israel to the International Criminal Court. Israel has so far released 78 prisoners.
An Israeli official said that the Palestinians also did not live up to their commitments under the framework, including to engage in serious and good faith negotiations.
Saeb Erekat, the PLO’s chief negotiator, said that both sides are still negotiating the scale and composition of the prisoner release, though he added that the Palestinians did not see any linkage between the release and the continuation of the negotiations.
Nonetheless, Palestinian sources in Ramallah told Israel Radio that there would be no discussion of future negotiations without the fourth installment of the prisoner release, which should include Israeli Arabs. The Israeli government has so far refused to consider freeing Israeli citizens convicted of terrorist acts.
The Palestinians were demanding that 14 Israeli-Arabs be released
in the final batch, something that would be politically difficult for Netanyahu to get passed through the cabinet. The cabinet only has to reconvene to approve the final prisoner release if Israeli Arabs are included on the list.
Israel Radio reported Sunday that Israel offered to free 400 prisoners
on condition that their presence be limited to designated areas in the West Bank following their release.
Ministers in Netanyahu’s coalition vowed on Sunday that they will make every effort to block the reported release of an additional 400 jailed Palestinians.Herb Keinon and Khaled Abu Toameh contributed to this report.