Israel has to demonstrate a positive attitude on the peace process, so the international community understands that the Palestinians are responsible for the deadlocked peace talks, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said during a meeting of the Likud faction in Knesset on Tuesday.
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Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon asked Netanyahu if Israel intends to release Palestinian prisoners at month-end. "It's clear to everyone who is the balker here in the negotiations," Netanyahu said to Danon. "At this very moment it is becoming clear that the Palestinians are the balkers. Instead of disinclination, we should be demonstrating willingness. I suggest that now we let everybody realize who the reluctant one is, and let this perception take root in the international community."
Netanyahu also asked the Knesset members and ministers of Likud to avoid issuing statements about Palestinian issues that could divert international pressure from the Palestinians back to Israel. "We shouldn't say anything that could shadow the international understanding that the Palestinians are the balkers," Netanyahu said.
The prime minister mainly hopes to deflect the Palestinian attempt to shift international pressure to Israel by focusing attention on the fourth round of prisoner releases by Israel, scheduled for month-end. On Monday, during a meeting at the White House with U.S. President Barack Obama, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said he expects Israel to meet its commitment and carry out the release. That would signal Israel's seriousness about the peace process, Abbas said.
Earlier in the day, several central figures spoke out on the Palestinian issue, including Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, Interior Minister Gideon Sa'ar and Economy Minister Naftali Bennett. All three clarified that if the Palestinians refuse to extend the deadline for negotiations beyond April 29, as Israel demands, Israel should reconsider releasing the prisoners.
Livni even hinted that unless Abbas accepts the framework agreement suggested by the Americans, the prisoners should stay behind bars. "Abu Mazen holds the keys to the prison," she said. "The decisions he makes in the coming days will determine whether there is a basis to continue negotiating – serious negotiations based on fundamental understandings and a broad understanding on the substance of core issues. Israel does not want sterile negotiations designed to buy time and avoid making decisions."
A senior Israeli official said that the meeting between Obama and Abbas on Monday was a hard one. Obama pressed Abbas to accept the framework agreement, suggesting the Palestinian president present his reservations on the topics important to him. While Abbas dug in, he did not categorically reject the framework agreement, leaving room for talks to continue during the 10 days until the scheduled prisoner release, on April 28.
Saeb Erakat, the head of the Palestinian negotiating team, who was at the meeting between Obama and Abbas, said in a lecture at the Wilson Center in Washington today that the meeting was "long, candid and difficult." The Palestinians did not agree to extend the negotiations without a framework agreement that meets their demands, he said.
"This is the time to make decisions, not to continue talking," Erakat said, adding that the Palestinians would not recognize Israel as a Jewish state. "Asking me to do that is like asking me to forgo my narrative," he said. "The issue of the refugees is for negotiation, not public statements designed to win credit points in public opinion."
During their meeting, Abbas showed Obama a "very ugly map" of recently built Israeli settlements on area supposed to belong to the future Palestinian state. The extent of Israeli construction weakens his position among the Palestinians, he told the American president.