Israel has canceled the release of a fourth group of Palestinian prisoners as part of US-brokered peace talks. The move comes after the Palestinian president signed a request to join several UN international conventions.
The Israeli government was working to finalize an agreement to release the fourth and final batch of prisoners when Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas signed letters of accession to 15 international conventions, Israeli justice minister and chief negotiator with the Palestinians, Tzipi Livni, told an emergency meeting on Thursday evening.
"As the agreements on the release of prisoners were subject to upholding the Palestinian commitment not to go to the UN, new conditions have been created and Israel will not be able to free the prisoners," Livni told the Palestinians, according to an unnamed official briefed at the talks and cited by Reuters. Livni added that the “the sides” should review how it is possible to make progress in negotiations.
An emergency meeting on Wednesday night, between American envoy Martin Indyk and Israeli and Palestinian chief negotiators Livni and Saeb Erekat, yielded no result.
According to Palestinian news agency Maan, there was a "fierce political battle" and Indyk was unable to cool the air and stop the two sides from clashing.
US Secretary of State John Kerry said the seven-hour meeting with the Israeli and Palestinian negotiating teams in Jerusalem brought some progress, but stressed that gaps still remain.
Kerry spoke by telephone with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Abbas late Wednesday, and the three agreed to maintain contact until April 29.
The White House stated on Thursday that Israel’s decision to freeze the release of Palestinian prisoners creates challenges, but said the Middle East peace dialogue remains open.
On Wednesday, Livni accused the Palestinians of “breaking their commitments” to the United States and Israel, stating that if “they want” the recognition of Palestinian statehood, it should be done through negotiations.
At the same time, the Palestinian Authority (PA) stated that it went ahead and signed a request to join 15 UN agencies and international organizations after Israel failed to release prisoners on March 29 – the date initially agreed upon. PA leader Mahmoud Abbas signed the document in a televised ceremony.
Abbas then warned that he will commit the PA to joining 63 international institutions if the prisoners are not released.
The recent moves by both sides have created a new stumbling block in fragile peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians which resumed last July. Abbas agreed to suspend attempts to join UN agencies, while Israel promised to release 104 Palestinian prisoners in four groups.
The third group of prisoners were freed back in December when the Ministerial Committee for Prisoner Releases signed off on the release of 26 people.
At the time, Kerry also offered to release convicted Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard once Tel Aviv frees the fourth and final batch of prisoners.
Pollard is a former civilian US Navy intelligence analyst, who was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1987 after being charged with spying on the US for Israel.
The Palestinians responded by saying they need a complete halt to settlement construction in the West Bank and the release of 1,000 prisoners of their own choosing.