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Israel cancels planned release of Palestinian prisoners

Move retaliates for Palestinian act; Kerry trying to save negotiations

JERUSALEM — Israel said Thursday it would not go through with an already delayed release of Palestinian prisoners and was considering further sanctions against the Palestinians as the threat to the peace talks deepened further despite Secretary of State John Kerry’s frantic efforts to keep the process alive.

The talks have spiraled into an impasse as each side accuses the other of bad faith and both are now placing impediments in the way of a resolution.

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The Israeli decision came after the Palestinian leadership formally applied for membership in 15 international conventions and treaties, a move Israel deemed as an unacceptable violation of the US-brokered terms for the talks that began in July. But the Palestinians say they took that step only after the Israelis failed to meet the deadline for releasing the prisoners.

Worried that the process was in danger of collapsing, Kerry appealed to the leaders to “lead” and not let the atmosphere deteriorate.

President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority had pledged not to seek membership in international bodies for the nine months allotted for the negotiations in return for the release by Israel of 104 long-serving Palestinian prisoners, many of them convicted of murder, in four batches.

But Israel sought to condition the release of the final batch on an extension of the negotiations beyond the current deadline of April 29. And while the Palestinians blamed Israel for delaying the fourth release beyond a late-March deadline and precipitating the current crisis, Israel is now accusing the Palestinians of having scuppered the planned release with their move.

People involved in the negotiations said that Tzipi Livni, the Israeli government’s chief negotiator, told her Palestinian counterparts at an intense, overnight meeting convened by Martin Indyk, Kerry’s envoy, that the Palestinians had acted even though they knew the Israeli government was making a genuine, coordinated effort to arrange the prisoners’ release.

‘We will not withdraw the applications [to global conventions]. They stand.’

A Palestinian official  
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Livni called on the Palestinians to withdraw their applications and return to the negotiating table, according to people with knowledge of the meeting, arguing that unilateral steps would not advance the negotiations or the Palestinians’ cause. (None of those briefed on or involved in the meetings would speak publicly because Kerry has asked them to preserve the secrecy of the discussions.)

But the Palestinians seemed to think they had the upper hand. “For the first time the Palestinians have something to use against Israel if it does not abide by agreements, and we made use of it,” a Palestinian official close to the negotiations said Thursday. “We will not withdraw the applications. They stand.”

Maan, an independent Palestinian news agency, published what it said were new, stringent conditions set by Palestinian negotiators for any extension of the talks beyond April 29. They include a written commitment from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel that he recognizes the 1967 lines as the basis for the borders of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital and the release of an additional 1,200 prisoners — terms the Israelis would almost certainly reject.

But Yasser Abed Rabbo, a senior Palestinian official, told Agence France-Presse that “Israel has a habit of evading agreements and conventions it has signed,” adding: “That is why conditions for future negotiations must change radically.”

An Israeli official said that Jerusalem was considering further practical steps against the Palestinians. In the past, Israel has applied sanctions such as withholding the transfer of tax revenues it collects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority.

Rami G. Khouri, a Palestinian journalist and director of a public-policy institute at the American University of Beirut, said that after months in which a US mandate for secrecy around the talks had largely held, the fight had leapt into the public sphere.

“You have some posturing going on, which is just another form of negotiating — they’re negotiating in public now rather than in private,” Khouri said. “Each side is trying to curry favor with public opinion so if things collapse, they can blame the other side.”

Kerry, who began the day in Algiers , remained engaged in efforts to rescue the talks.

“We will continue to, no matter what, to try to facilitate the capacity of people to be able to make peace,” he said in Algiers. But he emphasized it was Netanyahu and Abbas who held ultimate responsibility.

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