The Middle East peace process appeared to be slipping into an even more critical condition, after Israel delayed its fourth and final tranche of agreed prisoner releases that have been long-awaited by the Palestinians.
Just hours after a crucial meeting between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas raised hopes that all was not yet lost, Israel announced that the release, which was supposed to take place tomorrow, would be postponed.
“There will be no release on Saturday,” Israeli Prison Authority spokeswoman Sivan Weizman said. Asked when it would take place, officials reiterated Israel’s demand that the Palestinians first pledge themselves to extending the deadline for agreeing on peace talks, which is due to expire at the end of April.
In advance of the preliminary negotiations, Israel last summer committed itself to freeing 104 long-serving prisoners. It has so far freed 78 in three previous batches.
The Palestinians, meanwhile are setting their own conditions for extending the troubled negotiations, and for agreeing to refrain from taking their grievances against continued occupation to the UN. These terms are, according to a Palestinian official, a freeze on Israeli settlement building in the West Bank and a release from Israeli prison of a group of prisoners including Marwan Barghouti, the popular leader of the second intifada uprising who is serving life sentences after being convicted of the murder of Israelis and a Greek Orthodox monk.
“The peace talks are not popular,” explained Abdullah Abdullah, deputy commissioner on foreign relations for Mr Abbas’s Fatah movement. “People have seen more land being grabbed by the Israelis and more houses demolished. We need a settlement freeze and the releases in order to justify continuing the talks to our people, who are not happy with what’s going on.”
Israel has rejected a settlement freeze and has in the past ruled out releasing Barghouthi. To extend the deal, Mr Abdullah said the Palestinians are also seeking freedom for other prisoners, including 22 women, minors, and 77 “terminally sick” prisoners.
“The Palestinians have no intention of continuing the negotiations to reach an agreement, and are looking for reasons to explode the negotiations,” Israeli legislator David Rotem, from the far-right Yisrael Beiteinu coalition partner, said of the demands to release Barghouthi and to freeze settlement building. “Unless they agree to continue the negotiations without conditions, there should be no prisoner release. These are people who were sentenced in trials.”
Despite the negative omens, a leading independent West Bank politician predicted yesterday that Mr Abbas will agree to extend the talks.
“I think he’ll remain in the negotiations to prevent financial sanctions from Europe, America and Israel and to prevent political isolation,” said Hassan Khreisheh, deputy speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council. However, he added that he believed Mr Abbas would be unwise to continue the negotiations: “He should stop because he has no power; the Palestinian internal situation is bad with the division between Hamas and Fatah; Arab neighbours are unstable and care only about their own countries and Israeli aggression against Palestinians is escalating daily.”
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