Israelis, Palestinians at odds over delayed prisoner release

A Palestinian woman holds a poster Saturday bearing pictures of Arab detainees being held in Israeli prisons since before the 1993 Oslo peace accords. Palestinians were protesting the postponement of the release of the prisoners outside the gates of Ofer prison, near the West Bank town of Betunia.
(Abbas Momani / Agence France-Presse/Getty Images)

JERUSALEM -- A delay in the release of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel is the latest disruption to the U.S.-brokered peace talks, with backstage efforts underway to break the impasse.

When the negotiations resumed in July, Israel agreed to release 104 long-serving Palestinians in four stages throughout the talks. In exchange, the Palestinians agreed to refrain from seeking U.N. actions backing their position for the duration of the negotiations.

Three groups of prisoners have been freed but Israel has yet to convene the relevant government committee to approve the final group slated for release at the end of March.


The nine months allotted by U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry for the current format of negotiations have yielded little agreement.

The reported U.S. plan to draft an agreed framework to continue the talks beyond the initial period have not succeeded. Alternative efforts to extend the talks past April are tangled in the prisoner release.

Israel will free no more prisoners without a Palestinian commitment to extend the talks. Until it becomes clear what Israel will get in return, “there will be no deal,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday. He also said any proposal for extending the talks would be subject to cabinet approval.

Meanwhile, the Palestinians reportedly refuse to consider any proposals for extending the talks until Israel goes ahead with the promised release, although chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said in a statement Sunday that “sensitive talks” were underway with the U.S. and Israel in attempts to resolve the issue.

Over the weekend, Israeli media reported an emerging deal for extending the talks involved the release of an additional 400 Palestinians imprisoned in Israel. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki denied on Saturday that any deal had been reached and said the U.S. was continuing to “work intensively with both sides.”

Kerry has already interrupted a working trip to Europe once to fly to Jordan for a meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, while U.S. officials continue efforts to salvage the talks.

Sobelman is a special correspondent.