The Palestinians are refusing to budge on the issue of recognizing Israel as a Jewish state and forfeiting the “right of return,” Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said on Sunday.
It was impossible to say there was progress right now in the diplomatic process, he said at Sunday’s weekly cabinet meeting, but “we are continuing to work with the Americans.”
US envoy Martin Indyk met over the weekend separately with Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and PLO negotiator Saeb Erekat, to look for ways to salvage the diplomatic process.
Indyk’s efforts came a week before Israel is expected to release the fourth and final batch of Palestinian security prisoners it agreed last July to let go as part of the framework that led to the PLO agreeing to restart negotiations.
Livni last week questioned the wisdom of going through with the talks if the Palestinians do not commit themselves to continuing the negotiations past the nine-month deadline for the talks that expires on April 29.
“To move serious negotiations forward, all of us will have to make decisions and show that we want an agreement and true peace,” she said. “The burden of proof also rests on the Palestinians’ shoulders. We will consider the prisoner matter in this light, so that the keys to the prison doors are in the hands of Abu Mazen [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas] and the decisions he will take in the coming days.”
There was never an “automatic commitment to release prisoners unrelated to making progress in negotiations,” Livni said.
Netanyahu has been silent regarding whether Israel will go through with the release, despite calls from key ministers inside the government for him not to do so.
He is one of the five ministers who would have to convene some 48 hours before a planned release to draw up the names of another 26 prisoners to be released. No date for that meeting has been announced.
Another minister in that committee, Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch, said before the cabinet meeting that commitments needed to be fulfilled, but that this applied to the Palestinians as well as to Israel.
One thing that was certain, he told reporters, was that neither he nor any of the other four members of the full cabinet from his Yisrael Beytenu party would vote in favor of including Israeli Arabs in the release – something the Palestinians are demanding.
Any decision to release Israeli Arabs would necessitate full cabinet approval, and at this point the chances of it signing off on such an agreement seem thin.
Israel Radio reported that US officials were mulling the idea of releasing Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard in order to get Israel to include Israeli Arabs in the next prisoner release.
Sources in the Prime Minister’s Office, however, said that the issue has not been discussed inside the office.
Ministers declined to comment on the report, calling it speculation. But former defense minister Shaul Mofaz said including Pollard in the deal could be the only way for the release of Israeli-Arab terrorists to pass in the cabinet.
“My head says no, but my heart says yes,” said Labor MK Nachman Shai, who heads the Knesset’s Pollard Lobby.
“He needs to be released for reasons having nothing to do with the diplomatic process. I oppose releasing Israeli Arabs.
These two issues should not be connected. But I would still welcome ending the Pollard episode, so I would recommend that ministers vote in favor.”
Labor MK Hilik Bar added that “the terrorists did more damage to Israel and peace than Pollard,” so the US releasing Pollard would be a welcome gesture to Israel to help swallow the prisoner release.
But Bayit Yehudi MK Mordechai Yogev said the US would be immoral if it asked Israel to release terrorists to bring about Pollard’s freedom.
“This proposal is unethical and must be outright rejected,” Yogev said. “It is immoral because the US should have freed Pollard long ago for humanitarian reasons, and because he has already served much longer than others who committed the same crime.”
A demonstration against releasing Israeli-Arab terrorists is to be held Monday outside Netanya’s Park Hotel, where a suicide bomber killed 30 people at a Passover Seder in 2002.
Meanwhile, Erekat said on Sunday that “Israel’s actions show that it has chosen settlements and dictates instead of peace and negotiations.”
He made the latest charge during separate meetings he had with visiting Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn and with UN and US peace envoys Robert Serry and Martin Indyk.
Erekat was quoted as saying that Israel “rejects peace by refusing to comply with the principles of international law for resolving the conflict.”
He condemned Israel’s latest decision to build 2,500 housing units over the Green Line, the continued blockade of the Gaza Strip and “assaults” on the Aksa Mosque.
These practices show that Israel’s goal is to destroy American and international efforts to achieve a two-state solution on the basis of the pre-1967 lines, Erekat said.
Indyk held a separate meeting in Ramallah with Abbas, who briefed him on the status of the peace process.
Abbas told the US emissary that any attempt to delay the release of the fourth batch of Palestinian prisoners would hurt the peace process, a PA official said.