Israel is likely to free the remaining 26 Palestinian security prisoners agreed upon at the beginning of the current round of peace talks in the coming days, following intensive US efforts to salvage the negotiations and ensure a continuation of the talks beyond the April 29 deadline.
Palestinian officials in Ramallah on Sunday expressed their optimism that Israel would release the fourth and final batch of Palestinian prisoners “very soon.”
A source close to PA President Mahmoud Abbas called a meeting of senior PA officials in Ramallah on Monday morning to discuss the issue.
Under the US-brokered framework that led to a restart of the negotiations last July, Israel was scheduled to have released the last batch of prisoners on Saturday night, bringing the number of released terrorists convicted for crimes before the 1993 Oslo Accords to 104.
Israel missed the Saturday night deadline, with one highly placed source familiar with the talks saying Jerusalem is unwilling to go ahead with the release because the Palestinians were saying that immediately afterward they would end the talks and “embark on diplomatic warfare against Israel.”
“We are prepared to go through with the release, but we want to know that this is part of a diplomatic process that is continuing,” the official said.
US Middle East envoy Martin Indyk has been working intensively over the last few days trying to come up with a formula that would allow the talks to continue past the nine-month deadline that expires in less than a month.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, speaking to Likud ministers before the start of the weekly cabinet session, said the picture regarding the prisoner release would “become clearer” in the coming days.
Netanyahu referred to reports that Israel would release an additional 400 prisoners to the Palestinians in order to keep the talks going beyond the April 29 deadline.
“No way will there be a deal with the Palestinians to release prisoners without clear reciprocity to Israel. And if there will be a deal, it will come to the cabinet for its approval,” he said.
He did not deny, however, that such a deal was being discussed. According to reports, neither confirmed nor denied by Israeli officials, Israel would pick the prisoners to be released, ensuring they would be less “high risk” or high-profile prisoners.
Netanyahu entreated the Likud ministers to refrain from commenting on the prisoner release issue until the full picture becomes clear.
Another idea that has been circulated as a way for the talks to continue would be for Israel to agree to restrict construction in settlements beyond the large settlement blocs.
That, however, would generate considerable opposition inside the cabinet by Bayit Yehudi and some of the Likud Beytenu ministers.
One Palestinian source said there were “positive developments” Sunday evening regarding the issue of the prisoners, but refused to elaborate.
PA Minister for Prisoners Affairs Issa Qaraqi said Abbas was pursuing his efforts with the Americans to secure the release of the last batch of prisoners.
“Until now we don’t have a specific date for the release of the prisoners, but we are continuing with our efforts,” Qaraqi said.
President Shimon Peres, meanwhile, said there is “a serious effort” by all parties to salvage the talks, that there was progress, and that situation should be clarified by Monday evening.
A five-person ministerial committee, chaired by Netanyahu, would have to meet at least 48 hours before the release to draw up the names of the prisoners to be freed. This period is needed to allow petitions to the High Court of Justice to stop the move.
The Palestinians are demanding that 14 Israeli Arabs convicted of terrorist crimes before the 1993 Oslo Accords be among the final batch set to be released, claiming that US Secretary of State John Kerry told them in July when the framework was put together that this would be the case.
Israel denies making any promises to release Israeli Arabs, and when the cabinet approved the overall framework last summer, it stipulated that any inclusion of Israeli Arabs into the mix would have to go back to the government for re-approval.