Israel Frees Palestinians as Annexation Bill Shakes Talks

Israel prepared to release 26 Palestinian prisoners in a peacemaking gesture, even as the chief Palestinian negotiator declared that U.S.-brokered talks have foundered halfway to a critical deadline.

Under the terms that brought the sides back to the negotiating table in July after a three-year deadlock, Israel agreed to release 104 Palestinian prisoners, most convicted of deadly attacks on Israelis, in four rounds. Tonight’s release of 26 men, which still faces a challenge in Israel’s highest court, is to be the third during the nine months of talks the sides agreed to pursue.

Goodwill generated by the promised releases was eclipsed by a decision by an Israeli ministerial committee yesterday to push ahead a bill to annex parts of the West Bank, territory the Palestinians seek as part of a future state. Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat accused Israel of being “determined to undermine” Palestinian statehood.

“The talks failed,” Erekat told Voice of Palestine Radio today. “We don’t need nine months to judge the negotiations. Israel has caused them to fail.”

Israel’s justice minister and chief negotiator, Tzipi Livni, also criticized the decision, calling it an attempt “to ignore the world and support delusional and extremist legislature.” She warned that failure to end Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians would deepen her country’s isolation.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told members of his Likud-Beitenu parliamentary faction in Jerusalem today that releasing the prisoners was a hard decision and demonstrates that Israel has a “strategic interest” in the continuation of peace talks.

Strained Talks

Negotiations have already been strained by Israeli settlement construction and escalating violence. With no breakthrough reported on issues such as final borders, the status of Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is laboring to craft a blueprint that will allow talks to stay on track, possibly beyond the current April 29 end date. Kerry returns to the region this week.

While Netanyahu hasn’t thrown his support behind the annexation move, it isn’t the first time the Jordan Valley has emerged as a sticking point in the talks. In the past, Netanyahu has said Israel must maintain a security presence in the Jordan Valley even after the area is handed over to the Palestinians in order to safeguard its eastern frontier. Palestinian officials say such a presence would violate the sovereignty of the state they want to establish in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem.

Jordan Valley

Kerry has tried to broker a compromise by limiting any future Israeli security presence in the Jordan Valley to a specific time frame, Israel Radio reported last week, with electronic monitoring devices and possibly international troops eventually taking their place.

Frictions between the sides have also been exacerbated by Israeli plans to announce new construction in West Bank settlements, timed to take the edge off domestic opposition to the prisoner releases. Palestinians, backed by the U.S., say such construction hinders the chance for a possible peace deal because it eats away at land they want for a state. Israel says it never agreed to halt such building during the talks.

Livni, speaking at a Tel Aviv conference today, voiced concern about growing international sanctions penalizing Israel for its policies toward the Palestinians.

‘Dangling Sword’

“The conflict is the Israeli economy’s glass ceiling,” she said, “a dangling sword threatening to fall on our head.”

“The international economic and academic boycott began with settlements, but spread to all of Israel,” she said. “Israeli exports will come up against ideological consumerism, universities will come up against an economic boycott and our vaunted research will encounter rigid European guidelines. And it doesn’t stop there. It is growing steadily and exponentially.”

Taking a harder line, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon told participants at the same conference that “a European boycott is preferable” to rocket fire from the West Bank on Israel’s heartland.

The European Union recently imposed funding restrictions on research institutions that operate in Israeli-occupied areas Palestinians claim for a state, and an an American academic group recently voted to boycott Israeli academic institutions.

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