Israel has dealt another serious blow to the John Kerry-led peace process with its refusal to release a final batch of Palestinian prisoners. The refusal is a flagrant violation of its own promise. Under the deal that re-launched peace talks last July, Tel Aviv had agreed to release 104 Arabs held since before the 1993 Oslo peace accords in exchange for the Palestinians not pressing their statehood claims at the United Nations.
The latest move is a ploy by the Netanyahu government to extract more concessions from Palestinians. Until now, Israel has freed 78 prisoners in three batches but ministers had warned they would block the final release, which had been anticipated for Saturday, if the Palestinians refused to extend the talks beyond their April 29 deadline.
Palestinians have reacted furiously to the Israeli decision, because prisoner release is keenly awaited by Palestinian families whose members have been held in Israeli prisons for the flimsiest of reasons or even for no reason. Jibril Rajub, a member of Fatah’s central committee, called the Israeli move a ‘slap in the face of the US administration and its efforts,’ and said the Palestinians would resume their international diplomatic offensive.
There are indications that the peace talks initiated by US Secretary of State John Kerry would hit more substantial hurdles in the coming days as the talks approach the critical issues. Pessimism was the predominant mood when Kerry first initiated the process. But he moved with a tenacity and determination that surprised many, making several trips to the region in close succession for holding talks with both sides. Despite opposition from the Israeli side and some virulent criticism from some of its ministers against Kerry, they finally agreed to cooperate. That cooperation is now coming to a cul-de-sac. It will be interesting to watch how Kerry proposes to overcome the new hurdles and how far he will succeed.
As there are talks of peace talks collapsing, Washington is trying to inject optimism. The State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki denied reports that negotiations had already collapsed and said any reports that suggest the talks are off are inaccurate.
At the same time, EU officials are more realistic. They have warned of a significant risk of regional upheaval and the ‘derailment of peace talks’ due to increasing tension over the flashpoint Al Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem. There are also reports that Netanyahu could give a green light to the prisoner release if the US frees Jonathan Pollard, who was arrested in Washington on espionage charges.
Palestinians too need to harden their position and not succumb to Israeli pressures. A final solution is nowhere in sight. Palestinians have nothing to lose.