Netanyahu: Talks With Palestinians 'Verging on a Crisis'

U.S., Israel and Palestinians making last-ditch efforts to agree on extending talks, as Habayit Hayehudi threatens to leave the government coalition.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, speaks during the weekly cabinet meeting
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, speaks during the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem, Israel, March 23, 2014. AP

The United States, Israel and the Palestinian Authority are continuing to wage an intense, last-minute effort to reach an agreement that will prevent the collapse of the peace talks and allow their extension for a few months.

To that end, meetings have been held involving Martin Indyk, the U.S. special envoy to the negotiations, PA negotiator Saeb Erekat, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who is the head of the Israeli negotiating team, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s personal representative, Isaac Molho.

“They are trying to find a solution since no one wants the talks to blow up,” said a senior Israeli official.

Israel and the United States are still waiting for an answer from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to proposals made over the weekend involving extension of the negotiations. Prime Minister Netanyahu described the talks on Sunday as “verging on a crisis.”

For his part, President Shimon Peres noted that within a day or two it will be known whether a solution can be found to allow the continuation of the talks. The Israeli president warned that if they collapse, it will be hard if not impossible to renew them.

Despite pessimism in Jerusalem about the Palestinian response to the latest offers suggested to them, Netanyahu began on Sunday to prepare the cabinet ministers from his Likud party for the possibility that they may have to approve a series of additional confidence-building measures, including the release of hundreds more Palestinian prisoners.

The ministers from Habayit Hayehudi and some from Likud - Yisrael Beiteinu are expected to vote against any deal with the Palestinians that includes freeing additional prisoners. Naftali Bennett, the head of Habayit Hayehudi, declared that such a move will “never happen.” The assumption is that an agreement to free Palestinians would provoke Bennett's party to leave the coalition.

“I recommend avoiding comments until the full picture becomes clear, and this could be a matter of only a few days,” Netanyahu told Likud ministers. “Either it is finalized or it blows up. In any case, there will not be a deal without clarification of the compensation Israel will receive, and if there is a deal it will be brought for cabinet approval.”

Specifically, Israel and the United States have proposed that the Palestinians commit to extending the talks for a few months beyond the original deadline of April 29, and also promise not to undertake any unilateral actions against Israel in United Nations institutions.

In return, Israel will carry out the fourth stage of the prisoner releases it committed to as part of the agreement to renew the talks last July. In addition, Jerusalem will make a number of other gestures – including the release of a few hundred more Palestinian prisoners, on condition Israel selects them. It is not clear if the new offer includes the 14 Israeli Arab prisoners who were imprisoned even before the Oslo Accords over 20 years ago, whose release the Palestinians are demanding.

In return for continuing the talks, the PA is demanding that Israel freeze all building in the settlements, and allow construction of large economic and infrastructure projects in Area C of the West Bank, which is under full Israeli security and civil control. Jerusalem has not yet agreed to these two conditions.

The Palestinian leadership is meeting Monday evening to discuss the crisis in the negotiations, and the non-implementation of the fourth stage of the release of Palestinian prisoners. Senior PA and Fatah officials said the discussion will continue as needed, for a few days, so that a decision can be made as to the future of the peace process, and in regard to whether the PA will reinstate its appeal to UN organizations.