A slightly different version of this story appeared earlier today on +972 Magazine, here.

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“No, I am not satisfied”, said Qaddoura Fares, crisply, commenting on the Israeli Cabinet vote Sunday — after hours of debate and delay for persuasion of the unconvinced —  to release 104 Palestinian prisoners.

Qaddura Fares photo from Ramallah press conference posted on Israel Radio website - interviewed 28 July 2013
Qaddura Fares photo from Ramallah press conference posted on Israel Radio website - interviewed 28 July 2013

That vote led immediately to a formal invitation from the U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to both Israeli and Palestinian negotiations to come to dinner in Washington the very next day, for 1st direct meetings [since January 2012].  The State Dept officially announced resumption of “direct final-status negotiations”, and on Monday Pres Obama welcomed the arrival of Israeli + Palestinian representatives to “formally resume direct final status negotiations”,

Qaddoura, a Fatah leader [who, years ago, was a member of what was then-known as “Young Fatah”] spent many years of his youth in Israeli jails, and is now head of the Palestinian Prisoners’ Club in Ramallah, which works to help Palestinians being tried in Israeli courts — most often, military — and held in Israeli jails.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had given Kerry a list of the 104 longest-held Palestinian prisoners, and Kerry sent that Palestinian list to Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu.  Kerry reportedly pressed for their release, and pinched hard when Netanyahu tried to strike off Palestinians who are either Israeli citizens or Permanent Residents of East Jerusalem.  Over the weekend, Netanyahu relented but said he would put the matter to a Cabinet vote on Sunday.

Netanyahu said in a statement published on Facebook on Saturday that “heads of state are at times required to make decisions that go against public opinion when matter of national import is at stake”.

But Netanyahu didn’t want to shoulder this responsibility alone, and said he would submit the matter to a vote in the regular meeting of his Cabinet on Sunday.

He also said the release would happen during the negotiations, not before — and he said it would stop if the Palestinians did not behave well.

Then, Netanyahu started making phone calls to try and get  support for the cabinet vote on the prisoner release…

Israeli government officials said that if Mahmoud Abbas could ask for the release of Palestinians with full Israeli citizenship,  this would imply that the PLO, and not Israel, is responsible for these men.

So, did the Israeli Cabinet on Sunday make the decision that the Palestinians awaited, and the Americans pressed for?  It’s not entirely clear.

Qaddoura Fares reportedly said, in a radio interview reported by AFP here, that it would not be acceptable if Israel tries to expel some of the prisoners on the release list, as has happened previously.  He added that “‘Expulsion is punishment …  These people. who are now over 50 years old, all of them sick, need to be released to their homes”.

But, Barak Ravid reported late Sunday night here that “Shin Bet has recommended that some prisoners not be released, while others should be released only to Gaza or be deported”

Qaddura Fares had also indicated, in a radio interview early Sunday, that there would be no talks unless and until all 104 prisoners were released:  “If they don’t free all of them, there will be no negotiations”.

But, Haaretz’ Barak Ravid wrote on Twitter that Netanyahu had also assured his Likud colleagues that that “every decision to release Arab-Israeli prisoners will be brought back for a vote in the cabinet”.  

This means that a decision has in fact not been taken to release them, yet.

Ravid wrote in a subsequent article in Haaretz that: “During the debate, [Silvan] Shalom proposed a compromise that eased the way for many Likud ministers to not vote against. Under the proposal, which was adopted by Netanyahu, any decision to release Israeli Arabs would require a new vote by the full cabinet. Based on the tentative schedule of prisoner releases, such a discussion is likely to take place, if at all, only in another nine months”.

This suggests that Netanyahu may be trying to evade his commitment.

Ravid also Tweeted that Netanyahu had told Likud ministers that “every Palestinian provocation will result in halting of the prisoner release process”.

This could mean constant problems.

It appears that Netanyahu intends, by working through the ministerial group, to keep control over the decision about 104 prisoners will be released — without reference to the Abbas list.  A Cabinet statement distributed by the Government Press Office after the  vote on Sunday says: “The Cabinet also decided to authorize a ministerial team … [which] will take all measures necessary for the release of 104 prisoners in the framework of the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians”…

Does this mean, any 104 prisoners?  … out of a total of nearly 5000 Palestinians being held in Israeli jails?

Barak Ravid reported here that Netanyahu said “We will authorize a ministerial team to determine the identity of the prisoners that will be released after opening of the diplomatic process”.

The Cabinet statement distributed by the GPO also says that any release will happen “only after the negotiations will have begun and in accordance with their progress, according to the conditions, criteria, dates and groups to be set by the team, including publicly listing their names”.

In earlier prisoner releases, which have been long dragged-out affairs, there was quite a bit of bickering and haggling, delays and disappointments.  The Palestinians have had to settle for much less than they wanted, and even much less than they thought they were promised.

Then, in any case, as Barak Ravid said on Twitter in answer to a question over the weekend, 30 of the 0ver-1000 Palestinians released in the Shalit swap have since been re-captured and returned to Israeli jails.

The Cabinet statement later Sunday said: “The State of Israel reserves to itself the right to take all measures against any of the prisoners who will be released should they return to terrorism or violate the terms of their release, in addition to returning them to serve the remainders of their sentences, as will be decided upon by the proper authorities”.

But, the Palestinian leadership and PLO negotiators decided to put the most positive interpretation on the Cabinet vote.

A PLO statement issued on Sunday evening in the name of Sa’eb Erekat, “Chief Palestinian Negotiator”, said that “This Israeli cabinet decision is an overdue step towards the implementation of the Sharm Sheikh agreement of 1999, whereby Israel committed to release all the Pre-Oslo prisoners. We welcome this decision, 14 years later”.

The statement added that “The decision includes all Pre-Oslo political prisoners that remain in Israeli prisons, including Palestinians from Israel”.  It also said: “We will continue working for the release of all our political prisoners”.

PLO officials were not concerned that the prisoners would not be released before talks begin [today].  One PLO official I spoke to seemed to understand that the first group of Palestinian  long-term prisoners will be released “within days” [at the very latest, by the Eid holiday after the end of Ramadan, sometime around 9 August.]

What was important, I was told, was to get the commitment from Israel, voted + approved, to release the 104 prisoners in 4 stages [within the duration of the talks, some 6-9 months] — which is what Kerry had proposed.

Another PLO official told me that they were placing their trust totally in Kerry, who has been functioning quite effectively as broker.

What enabled this, apparently, is the guarantee the Palestinians received from Washington [in a “letter of assurances” from Kerry] that talks will be based on pre-4-June 1967 lines.

It is known that Abbas was personally chagrined, and felt his position had been weakened, by Israeli’s phased exchange of over 1000 Palestinian prisoners on a Hamas list, in exchange for the release of Gilad Shalit in October 2011.   This release of the longest-held Palestinians, at Abbas’ specific request, is now meant to bolster his position as he enters into talks — despite dissatisfaction in Palestinian ranks.

Qaddoura Fares said Monday: “I think there are a lot of reservations about the process, the procedure. Why will it be done in four stages? Why over a period of six-to-nine months? Who will decide who will be released? Who will decide who will be included in the first group? Who will decide when they will be released? It is all not clear”.

Qaddoura also said: “we have little hope.  We’ll be careful about the implementation of this deal, and if they don’t implement it, we’ll make pressure — and we’ll try to stop this negotiation”.

 

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