Israel considers cancellation of fourth Palestinian prisoner release
JERUSALEM - Israel's pledge to free 26 Palestinians prisoners this month will definitely not include Arab Israelis and may not even take place at all, a minister said Tuesday.
Speaking to army radio, Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, an outspoken hardliner who opposes a Palestinian state, said Israel's pledge to release them was unlikely to happen because there had been no move in the US-led peace process.
And if it did, the government would never agree to release Arab Israeli citizens jailed for nationalist attacks, he said.
So far, 78 of a total of 104 veteran Palestinian prisoners have been freed in three separate tranches, with the final group due to be released on March 29.
"The (original) decision said (the release) should be dependent on progress in the negotiations and now it is clear to everyone that there has been no progress," Bennett said of the talks which are facing collapse ahead of an April 29 deadline.
Bennett also said the idea of including Arab citizens of Israel in the release was "delusional".
The Palestinians have reportedly named 14 Arab Israelis they want freed, but all names must be approved by the Israeli government.
"The government of Israel never took any decision to release Israeli prisoners... they are citizens of Israel and the Palestinian Authority does not run their lives," Bennett said, denying that any such "promise" had been made to US Secretary of State John Kerry.
Bennett accused Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas of staying in the talks purely to ensure another 26 prisoners were freed.
"Where's the logic if Abu Mazen (Abbas) is already saying: I'll just get these terrorists freed and then I'll destroy the talks?"
His remarks were made a day after Abbas told US President Barack Obama that releasing the prisoners would be a good step to demonstrate Israel's seriousness about the peace process.
Qadura Fares, head of the Ramallah-based Prisoner's Club, said the upcoming release was crucial.
"The Palestinians are adamant on this point. The prisoners must be released on time," he told Voice of Palestine radio.
Suggestions that Israel may not follow through with the release have further exacerbated tensions, with Washington working hard behind the scenes to head off a crisis which could deal a death blow to the fragile dialogue between the sides.