WASHINGTON -- Israel's failure to release a final batch of Palestinian prisoners, scheduled for Saturday night, amounts to a violation of the terms of the original agreement reached between Israel and the Palestinians at the start of talks nine months ago, brokered by the United States, US officials have told their Israeli counterparts.
The outline of that original agreement was never published in full. But Israel publicly acknowledged its commitment to four prisoner releases as a condition of peace talks with the Palestinians.
In return, Palestinian leadership agreed not to seek punishment of Israel through the International Criminal Court.
US sources tell The Jerusalem Post they fear the consequences of Israel's failure to release the final group of prisoners, expressly calling the decision a violation of the original deal.
US special envoy to the Middle East peace process Martin Indyk is on the ground working to secure the release, Jen Psaki said in a statement on Saturday.
"On an agreement on the release of prisoners," Psaki said, "no deal has been arrived at and we continue to work intensively with both sides. Any claims to the contrary are inaccurate."
She said that, after meeting with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov in Paris over the Crimean crisis, US Secretary of State John Kerry may travel to the region to join Indyk in his efforts.
Meanwhile, 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.”
The official's comments came as the eight month negotiations faced its biggest crisis, with Israel missing the Saturday night deadline for releasing the last batch of Palestinian prisoners, and efforts stalled by US Secretary of State John Kerry to draw up a framework for continuing 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.
The official said that the release of the first three tranches of prisoners was “not easy,” and that Israel would not go through with the final batch, which includes “some of the most difficult” terrorists, if “nothing will happen afterward.”
The official denied reports that Netanyahu told Kerry that his coalition would fall apart if he decided to go ahead with the final prisoner release.
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.
One Israeli official said that efforts were continuing to find a formula that would break the impasse. He would not relate to reports that Israel had agreed to release another 400 Palestinian security prisoners of its choosing, along with the fourth batch of 26 pre-Oslo prisoners, if the Palestinians agree to remain at the table for another six months past the April 29 deadline for the talks.
On the Palestinian side, officials in Ramallah said the PA was still waiting for a US reply regarding the fate of the prisoners.
Nimer Hammad, political advisor to PA President Mahmoud Abbas, said, "The US Administration previously sponsored the release of Palestinian prisoners so that we wouldn't go to the United Nations and international agencies. Now it has to fulfill its commitment and we are waiting for its reply."
Hammad said that the US Administration should exert pressure on Israel to implement the understandings reached regarding the release of Palestinians imprisoned before the signing of the Oslo Accords." He said that if Israel refuses to release the fourth and final batch of prisoners, then US Secretary of State John Kerry should hold the Israeli government responsible for obstructing his efforts to achieve peace.
Hamad said that the PA leadership does not intend to engage in a "war of statements" with Israel and prefers to give the US Administration more time to pursue its efforts.
PA Minister for Prisoners Affairs, Issa Qaraqi, also sought to play down the crisis over the prisoners.
The US, he said, is counting its efforts to seek the release of the fourth batch of prisoners.
"The prisoners won't be released today [Saturday]," he added. "But the doors have still not been closed. The Palestinian leadership is waiting to see what the coming hours would bring."
Earlier, Palestinian officials denounced Israel for refusing to release the prisoners on Saturday, dubbing it a severe blow to Kerry's efforts to achieve peace.
Fatah Central Committee member Jibril Rajoub told AFP that the Israeli government has informed the US of its decision not to release the prisoners.
Another Fatah official, Ziad Abu Ain Abu Ain said that Israel was seeking to sabotage the agreement [on the prisoners] because of its "internal crisis" - a reference to the opposition of some Israeli ministers to the move.
He accused Israel of working to "blackmail" the Palestinians by conditioning the release of the prisoners on the PA leadership's agreement to the extension of the talks..
Hazem Abu Shanab, member of the Fatah Revolutionary Council, was quoted on Friday as saying that Israel would "regret" its decision not to release the prisoners on time.
Abu Shanab told the Ma'an news agency that the decision would cause Israel "huge damage." He urged the US Administration to step up its pressure on Israel to fulfill its commitments toward the peace process.
"Failure to release the prisoners will pave the way for various Palestinian steps that could change the political and diplomatic equation in the international arena," Abu Shanab cautioned.
Khaled Abu Toameh contributed to this report.