Israeli cabinet ministers authorized a third round of Palestinian prisoner releases, following through on a pledge made to help bring Palestinians back to the negotiating table.
“The release of 26 Palestinian prisoners was authorized this evening,” the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement e-mailed late yesterday. Most were convicted over attacks on Israelis and, according to the statement, all have served sentences of at least 19 years.
The prisoners’ names were published overnight on the Israel Prison Services website. Israelis have 48 hours to appeal to the High Court of Justice to block their release.
Israel agreed to free 104 Palestinian prisoners in four rounds as part of the deal that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry brokered in July to renew peace negotiations for a period of nine months.
Kerry is scheduled to travel to the Middle East on Jan. 1 in an effort to advance the talks, and possibly to achieve an agreement that would enable the negotiations to extend beyond their current April 29 deadline.
“Right now, the effort is to reach a framework agreement that will guide the negotiations in the direction of a final agreement that will end the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians,” U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro said today in an interview on Israeli Army Radio. “We discern significant advancement in recent weeks, and the secretary really wants to take advantage of this visit to make progress.”
Shapiro refuted reports in local media linking further releases and Israeli concessions in peacemaking to the possible freeing by the U.S. of Jonathan Pollard, an American Jew imprisoned since 1985 for passing classified intelligence to Israel.
“In my view there is no direct connection between the Pollard issue and the negotiations, or the freeing of Palestinian prisoners,” Shapiro said.
The talks have been strained by reports that Israel will this week announce further construction in West Bank settlements, as it did concurrently with the two previous releases of Palestinian prisoners. While the U.S. has condemned such building and Palestinians say it threatens future negotiations, Shapiro said he doesn’t believe it will prove fatal to the peace process.
“We don’t expect any blow-up in the negotiations,” Shapiro said. “The two sides are keeping their commitments.”
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