Israel’s defense minister said Sunday it that “this is a critical week for the Israeli-Palestinian issue.” Moshe Yaalon was speaking after meeting visiting U.S. military chief Gen. Martin Dempsey. Yaalon said Israel appreciates the U.S.’s “commitment and contribution” in facilitating talks. Israeli officials say they are under no obligation to carry out the final release because of what they say is a Palestinian failure to negotiate in good faith.
Yuval Steinitz, a Likud Cabinet minister, said “it is clear” the release can’t be carried out if Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas plans on walking out of the talks the next day. “This release was meant to be carried out as the talks proceed, and not when they fall apart.”
Mohammed Ishtayeh, an aide to Abbas, accused Israel of “trying to blackmail us.”
But Palestinian officials stopped short of threatening to walk out of the talks altogether. The chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, confirmed that negotiations were ongoing and said Abbas was “making every possible effort” to ensure the release of the fourth group.
Palestinian officials said they would drive a tough bargain in exchange for extending the talks. The officials said Abbas would seek the release of 1,000 additional prisoners held by Israel as well as a freeze in Israeli settlement construction in captured territories sought by the Palestinians.
The issue of Palestinian prisoners is deeply emotional on both sides. The Palestinians consider the roughly 5,000 Palestinians held by Israel to be heroes and freedom fighters. Israel considers them to be terrorists. The prisoners released in the previous three tranches had all served lengthy terms for involvement in bloody attacks on Israelis, and scenes of them returning to jubilant celebrations have angered the Israeli public.
Netanyahu said he would present any additional release to his Cabinet — where approval is not guaranteed. Netanyahu’s coalition is dominated by hard-liners who have been extremely critical of the previous releases. The final release is especially contentious because it is expected to include convicted murderers and Arab citizens of Israel.