As Israeli, Palestinian, and US negotiators continue to haggle over the details of a prisoner release that would pave the way for the continuation of peace talks, ministers in Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s coalition are vowing on Sunday that they will make every effort to block the reported release of an additional 400 jailed Palestinians.
According to Israel Radio, a Palestinian source said that Israel offered to free 400 prisoners on condition that their presence be limited to designated areas in the West Bank following their release.
Palestinian officials told Israel Radio they would not permit Israel to determine which prisoners are to be released, nor would they accept the pardon of “car thieves,” as they put it.
“This will not happen,” Economy Minister Naftali Bennett vowed on his Facebook page.
Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz from Netanyahu’s own Likud faction said that his party is calling on the premier not to free convicted terrorists as part of the fourth installment of the prisoner release which Israel agreed to as a goodwill gesture prior to the start of peace negotiations.
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.
Khaled Abu Toameh contributed to this report.