Israel: Palestinian prisoner fate depends on talks

Associated Press Published:

JERUSALEM (AP) -- Israel's chief negotiator with the Palestinians on Tuesday cast doubt on whether a scheduled release of Palestinian prisoners will take place at the end of the month, threatening to plunge troubled U.S.-led peace talks into a new crisis.

Israel agreed to the release of 104 long-serving Palestinian prisoners in four stages as part of a package to relaunch peace talks last July. But after carrying out the first three releases, negotiator Tzipi Livni said the last group would be released only if there is progress in negotiations.

Speaking to a conference Tuesday, Livni said Israel never committed to the prisoner release. "The key to the prison where the Palestinian prisoners are being held" is in the hands of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, she said.

The fate of the roughly 5,000 prisoners held by Israel is extremely emotional in Palestinian society after decades of fighting Israel. Palestinians view them as heroes and prisoners freed in previous rounds were embraced by Abbas and welcomed in elaborate celebrations.

The issue is equally emotional in Israel, where the prisoners are seen as terrorists because many were involved in bloody attacks on civilians. Prisoners freed in previous rounds had been convicted in grisly killings of Israelis, and their releases angered many. Israel also objects to the Palestinian demand that Arab citizens of Israel be included in the final round.

"In order to promote serious negotiations we all have to make decisions and prove that our faces are toward a real peace agreement," Livni said. "The proof of that rests on the Palestinian shoulders as well,"

Livni's comments came at a sensitive time in the negotiations. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has set an April target date for reaching a preliminary framework peace deal that would set the stage for months of additional talks to wrap up an agreement.

But after nearly eight months of negotiations, there have been no indications that progress is being made. An Israeli refusal to carry out the release could cause a new crisis, or even collapse the talks.

The Palestinian minister of prisoner affairs, Issa Karake, said "if they (Israel) don't release them they will be foiling the whole peace process."

At a meeting with President Barack Obama at the White House on Monday, Abbas expressed hope the prisoners would go free. He said the release by the planned March 29 date would make a "solid impression" that Israel is serious about peace.

The talks have run into trouble over a series of issues. The Palestinians have refused Israel's demand that they recognize it as the homeland of the Jewish people. Israel, meanwhile, has rejected Palestinian demands to commit to basing the borders of a future Palestinian state on lands captured in 1967. It also rejects the Palestinian demand to establish a capital in east Jerusalem.

In Washington, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Israel and the Palestinians are at "a tough period, a pivotal period of the negotiations."

Asked whether she shared Abbas' hope that the release takes place, she said, "Certainly, because it's part of what was agreed to between the parties. We would support the prisoner release, of course."

"We're all familiar with the fact that the next tranche of prisoner releases is at the end of March. There obviously is pressure around that timeline," Psaki said. "But again, we're working day by day on this," she said.

___

Matthew Lee in Washington and Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed reporting.