OCCUPIED JERUSALEM: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday that it would be clear within “days” whether the crisis-hit peace talks would be extended beyond an April 29 deadline. His remarks come as U.S. officials work around the clock to prevent a collapse of the negotiations over a dispute about Palestinian prisoners.
“It could be a matter of just days,” Netanyahu told ministers from his right-wing Likud party.
“Either the matter will be resolved or it will blow up. And in any case, there won’t be any deal without Israel knowing clearly what it will get in exchange,” he said, according to his spokesman.
“And if there is a deal, it will be put to the Cabinet for approval.”
President Shimon Peres, currently on a visit to Austria, noted the sides were “working around the clock in an effort to reach a breakthrough in the talks.”
“I hope that in the coming days there will be positive developments in the negotiations,” he said.
With the talks teetering on the brink of collapse, Washington has been fighting an uphill battle to coax the two sides into accepting a framework proposal that would extend the negotiations to the end of the year.
But the matter has become tied up with the fate of 26 veteran Palestinian prisoners who Israel was to have freed this weekend.
Israel informed the Palestinians Friday that they would not free the detainees, with the U.S. State Department confirming it was working “intensively” to resolve the dispute.
The Palestinians say they will not even consider extending the talks without the prisoners being freed, but Israel has refused to release them without a Palestinian commitment to continue the talks, prompting a fresh crisis of confidence.
“We agreed to the fourth batch,” Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz told reporters Sunday, while stressing it would not happen as long as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was preparing to “blow up the negotiations” the very next day.
“The ball is now in Israel’s court,” Palestinian Prisoners Minister Issa Qaraqaa told Voice of Palestine radio Sunday, saying the leadership was expecting an answer from Israel within 24 hours.
Late Saturday, an official in Ramallah told AFP that Netanyahu had expressed willingness to free another 400 detainees and reduce Israel’s military presence in the West Bank in exchange for Palestinian agreement to extend the talks. Israeli officials refused to comment.
Under a deal that relaunched peace talks last July, Israel agreed to release 104 prisoners held since before the 1993 Oslo peace accords in exchange for the Palestinians freezing all efforts to seek further international recognition.
So far, Israel has freed 78 of them in three batches, and the last group – which includes 14 Arab Israelis jailed for nationalist attacks – was to have been released on March 29.