Standoff Over Prisoner Release Threatens Mideast Talks

Jodi Rudoren - The New York Times - March 23, 2014

JERUSALEM - The Israeli-Palestinian peace talks revived by Washington last summer are scheduled to continue until April 29, but a showdown - and possible breakdown - is likely this week over the anticipated release of a fourth batch of Palestinian prisoners.

President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority has recently indicated that unless the prisoners are freed as promised on March 29, he will not consider any extension of the negotiations past the deadline. But a growing number of Israeli leaders have threatened to halt the release unless the talks are extended. That chicken-and-egg problem is further complicated by Mr. Abbas's demand that Arab-Israeli prisoners be included, something the Israelis insist they never agreed to and vigorously oppose.

Secretary of State John Kerry's initial goal of having the two sides reach a final-status agreement during the nine-month talks was abandoned long ago, and the framework outlining core principles of a deal that he has been pressing for the past two months has now been all but shelved.

Instead, Martin Indyk, the Obama administration's envoy for the peace process, has spent the past two days meeting with negotiators here and in the West Bank to try to unravel the Gordian knot the sides have tied over the emotional question of releasing prisoners.

"We are entering a critical stage," Yitzhak Aharonovich, one of five Israeli ministers responsible for approving the list of prisoners for release, said Sunday on Israel Radio. "Commitments must be honored," he said. "The question is, does the other side honor the commitments?" Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, released a statement on Sunday saying that the Israeli government was "hellbent on destroying the two-state solution and the prospects of peace."

"We have been as committed as possible in order to finally allow our people a life free of occupation," Mr. Erekat said. "But there will have to come a time when we, and the U.S., must say enough is enough."

American officials involved in the talks have become more pessimistic about their prospects as they watch a familiar blame game already beginning about who should be held responsible if the negotiations collapse. The seriousness of the situation has led to renewed discussions over the possible release of Jonathan J. Pollard, an American serving a life sentence in North Carolina for spying for Israel, which those involved in the process see as a powerful card that Washington wants to play at the right moment for maximum effect.

Although Israelis, Palestinians and Americans all have an interest in extending the talks, analysts say, the politics surrounding the impending prisoner release may be too much to overcome, particularly given a recent flare-up in violence.

Israeli troops killed three Palestinian men on Saturday when an arrest raid before dawn in the Jenin refugee camp exploded into a two-hour shootout. The week before, militant groups in the Gaza Strip launched about 100 rockets into southern Israel, prompting several rounds of Israeli airstrikes. Israel seized a ship containing advanced weapons it said were bound for Gaza this month, and on Friday revealed a sophisticated tunnel from Gaza into Israel that it said was built to be used to attack or kidnap Israelis.

At the same time, Israel's continued construction of settlements in the West Bank throughout the talks has prompted outrage from Palestinians, the State Department and the international community.

Palestinian prisoners are a potent symbol on both sides of the conflict. The first three releases, of 26 prisoners each in August, October and December, set off searing protests by Israeli relatives of their victims, along with homecoming parades by exuberant Palestinians.

Israel committed to freeing 104 long-serving prisoners as part of the negotiations, in exchange for a Palestinian vow to refrain from pressing for statehood through United Nations organizations and the International Criminal Court. But without a promise to extend the talks, Israeli ministers, including Tzipi Livni, the prime promoter of the peace process, see little point in paying a political price at home for releasing prisoners only to have Mr. Abbas take the international steps a few weeks later that Israel fears.

To head off criticism from those who might say they are balking on a promise, Israeli leaders argue that the release was to be a result of nine months of negotiations, which have not really taken place: The last substantive meeting between the sides was in November. "The keys to the prison doors are in the hands of Abu Mazen," Ms. Livni said last week, using the Palestinian president's nickname. There was never, she added, an "automatic commitment to release prisoners unrelated to progress in negotiations."

If the prisoners are not released, Mr. Abbas told leaders of his Fatah faction on Saturday, it would be a violation of the agreement and allow them to "act however we see fit within the norms of international agreements." Last week, the Palestinians published a list of prisoners, including 14 citizens of Israel, that their leaders say Mr. Kerry approved last summer as he cajoled them to restart the talks.

But Israeli leaders say Mr. Kerry never got their approval for including Israeli Arabs. Their release would be even more controversial because they live among their victims' relatives and because many Israelis question Mr. Abbas's effort to represent Israeli citizens as part of his constituency.

"Things happened during Kerry's mediation," Moshe Yaalon, Israel's defense minister, said in a recent television interview. "Maybe Abu Mazen received from Kerry" such a promise, Mr. Yaalon said, but it was not one "Kerry received from the Israeli government."

For the release to occur as scheduled, five Israeli ministers must approve a list of names on Wednesday. Another possibility is a postponement until after next week's convention of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud Party, where he faces a challenge from conservatives opposed to all prisoner releases. That, though, would open a door for Mr. Abbas to walk away.

"We are going to see a crisis," warned Shlomo Brom, director of the program on Israeli-Palestinian relations at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University. "What the talks showed us is that the gaps and mutual distrust are much deeper than we thought. It is exactly an expression of mutual distrust when everyone is conditioning every confidence-building measure on what the other will do."

Ghassan Khatib, a Palestinian political analyst, said the battle over prisoners showcased the shallowness of the process so far.

"This is not the substance of the conflict - the conflict is about borders, about land, about settlements," said Mr. Khatib, vice president of Birzeit University in the West Bank city of Ramallah and a former spokesman for the Palestinian government. "Everybody is desperate for a resumption of talks, but nobody can afford making them productive. Nobody is talking about substance anymore."

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