Several days before Israeli-Palestinian talks are due to reconvene in Jerusalem, a severe crisis is in the making. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his chief negotiator Saeb Erekat, in meeting with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and special envoy Martin Indyk, condemned what they describe as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu violation of agreements on the release of prisoners and construction in settlements.
As part of the effort to renew the direct negotiations, Israel promised to release 104 Palestinian prisoners in four phases, during a period of eight months. On Sunday, the special ministerial committee on the release of Palestinian prisoners approved the release of the first group, consisting of 26 prisoners involved in the murders of Israelis in the pre-Oslo era. Nine of these prisoners were due to complete their sentences in the next three years.
The inmates are to be transferred into the Palestinian Authority's territory on Tuesday night – 48 hours after their identities are published.
The ministers, who are members of a special committee tasked with dealing with the release of Palestinian prisoners, decided in a late-night meeting that any of the convicts who resume terrorist activity will be arrested and returned to Israel to serve harsher sentences
The list of the prisoners to be released was made available on Sunday night on the Israel Prison Service website, in order to enable petitions to the High Court of Justice. Israel said it will release them to the Palestinian Authority forty-eight hours after the names are published, on Tuesday night.
Sunday's committee meeting on prisoners was deliberately scheduled to start late into the evening and end around midnight. The Prime Minister's Office hoped to hamper coverage in the morning papers of the prisoners and the murders they committed. Furthermore, in setting the release time and date to Tuesday night, Israel hopes to make it more difficult for the PA to arrange ceremonies and public celebrations.
Abbas and Erekat were especially enraged by reports in the Israeli press that due to their perceived security risk, Netanyahu plans to deport to the Gaza Strip or abroad some of the prisoners released in the next three phases, not allowing them return to their West Bank homes.
Senior Israeli and Palestinian officials said that Abbas and Erekat told senior U.S. officials they would not agree to the deportation of any prisoner released.
The Palestinians also condemned two different plans for settlement construction recently announced by Israeli officials. On Sunday, the Housing Ministry said it began marketing 1,200 housing units in East Jerusalem and the settlement blocs around the capital, which follows another announcement last week for construction of hundreds of housing units in secluded settlements.
The Palestinians were notified in advance of the building in East Jerusalem and the large blocs. While objecting, discussion of plans was part of the understandings that led to the renewal of the peace talks, along with the issue of the prisoners. The declaration of construction plans in secluded settlements, however caught the Palestinians by surprise. Netanyahu told U.S. officials that he, too, was surprised by the approval of the plan, but the Palestinians reject this as an excuse.
The Palestinians are now threatening not to show up to the first meeting between the negotiation teams scheduled for Wednesday. Abbas' office is seriously considering skipping out on the session, due to the continued settlement drive. A final decision will be reached on a meeting of the Palestinian leadership in the next 48 hours, according to a Palestinian sources in the negotiations.
The Palestinians need to weigh the risk of being perceived as the reason for the failure of talks, the source said.
"We're in communication with the Americans and the Europeans about the Israeli conduct, especially their announcements concerning ongoing construction in the settlements," the source said. "This all leads to one thing: There are official and unofficial elements in Israel that are doing their best to derail the talks; therefore, we're demanding that Kerry and his staff intervene immediately with the Israeli government, and perhaps aid Netanyahu to overcome ministers in his government that, daily, try to derail the talks."
Abbas will find it difficult to convince other Palestinian leaders to continue the talks, a senior Fatah official told Haaretz. "Ever since the announcement that negotiations would resume, the Israeli government has announced the construction of hundreds of housing units in the settlements and has not voiced any commitment 1967 borders. This is reflected in meetings with the Europeans. Concerning the prisoner issue as well, we are already hearing conditions and Israeli demands to deport some of the prisoners, and this too, is in complete violation of the agreements with Kerry. "This means that the Palestinians have nothing to gain from such a process."
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