With Israeli-Palestinian negotiations at a stalemate, even Justice Minister Tzipi Livni – the most ardent advocate of the talks inside the cabinet – questioned on Tuesday whether Israel should carry out a final release of Palestinian security prisoners next week.
“To move serious negotiations forward, all of us will have to make decisions and show that we want an agreement and true peace,” Livni said at the Negev Conference in Sderot. “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.”
Livni said there was never an “automatic commitment to release prisoners unrelated to making progress in negotiations.”
Abbas, who met US President Barack Obama in Washington on Monday, told the president that he expected Israel to carry out the release of a final batch of prisoners on March 29. Under the framework worked out in July that enabled the current round of talks, Israel took upon itself to release – in four tranches of 26 prisoners each – 104 Palestinians convicted of terrorist acts before the 1993 Oslo Accords. So far Israel has released 78 prisoners.
In recent days, however, more and more voices have been raised inside the government questioning whether Israel should go ahead with the next round, since Abbas has not committed himself to continuing the talks beyond the April 29 deadline and has shown reluctance in agreeing to a US document that would serve as a basis for future negotiations.
Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar said in an Army Radio interview that “there is no reason to release this group of terrorists when the Palestinian leadership declares its intention is to blow up the negotiations.”
This sentiment was echoed Tuesday by Economy Minister Naftali Bennett and Welfare and Social Services Minister Meir Cohen.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who has not said anything publicly about the matter, was asked about it at a Likud faction meeting Tuesday and was noncommittal, stressing that it was important that the world understand that it is the Palestinians, and not Israel, who are being recalcitrant.
PA Prisoner Affairs Minister Issa Karaka, meanwhile, warned that “any attempt to evade [the move] will lead to an explosion within the prisons,” and that the release “is a test of Israel’s preparedness for a just peace with the Palestinian people.”
The Palestinian Authority published a list on Tuesday of 30 terrorists it expects Israel to free in the release. The list included 14 Israeli Arabs and four Palestinians from east Jerusalem.
One government official, however, dismissed this list as a Palestinian “wish list.”
Under the cabinet decision that approved the prisoner releases in July, a ministerial committee made up of five ministers is empowered to draw up the names of those to be released in each tranche.
The cabinet does not have to vote again on the release unless Israeli Arabs are on the list. At this point, it seems very unlikely the cabinet would approve such a move.
The ministerial committee includes Netanyahu, Livni, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch and Science, Technology and Space Minister Yaakov Peri, who is a former head of the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency).
Among the long-serving prisoners on the list the Palestinians published were Israeli- Arab cousins Karim and Maher Yunis, who received life sentences in 1983 for the murder by stabbing of IDF soldier Avraham Bromberg.
Jerusalem Post staff contributed to this report.