Israeli, Palestinian Dispute Over Prisoners Endangers Talks

Israeli-Palestinian peace talks hit a new roadblock over the delayed release of Palestinian prisoners, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pressing the Palestinians to commit to extend negotiations.

Netanyahu said Israel won’t free the last of the 104 prisoners it agreed in July to release from its jails unless it’s clearly getting something in return, Army Radio cited him as telling ministers of his Likud party. An Israeli government official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he isn’t authorized to publicly discuss the talks, said Israel is hesitating over the release because the Palestinians have threatened not to extend nine months of negotiations expiring on April 29.

Israel consented to free four rounds of prisoners convicted in attacks on Israelis in an effort to win Palestinian agreement to resume peace talks. Three releases have taken place, and Israel’s chief negotiator, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, said March 18 that freeing more prisoners depends on whether Palestinians are ready to continue serious negotiations.

The lead Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, rejected the linkage, saying in an e-mailed statement today that the peace talks and the prisoner release are two distinct issues. Erekat said the Palestinians’ only commitment to Israel in exchange for the releases was to freeze their pursuit of statehood goals at the United Nations while talks continue.

“We are conducting intensive discussions with the Israelis and Palestinian regarding the prisoner release,” Erekat said, “and the doors are still open.”

The nine months of talks the sides approved in July expire April 29, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has said he will not extend the talks unless Israel agrees to free additional prisoners and freeze construction in its West Bank settlements, a demand Netanyahu has rejected.

The tussle over the prisoners is hindering U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts to tie up an agreement by April 29 on a framework for negotiations on a formal peace treaty, which has eluded the sides since talks began in 1993.

The American mediating team continues “to work intensively with both sides” on the release, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said yesterday.

Israeli President Shimon Peres told Army Radio, “I think there is progress.”

“I believe that tonight or tomorrow night we shall have news.”

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