Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has expressed willingness to release Palestinian prisoners to pave the way for a meeting with PA President Mahmoud Abbas, according to two Israeli sources and two Western diplomats cited in Haaretz.
All four diplomats also confirmed that Netanyahu’s envoy, Yitzhak Molcho, was representing Israel in contacts with the PA’s chief negotiator Saeb Erekat. Haaretz also reported that Molcho and Erekat met last week in Jerusalem for several hours and spoke a few times on the phone.
According to the report, the Palestinians have set two conditions for a meeting with Netanyahu. The first is the release of 123 prisoners incarcerated in Israel since before the Oslo Accords. Most of these prisoners are Fatah members who have now been in prison for between 25 and 35 years, after being convicted of involvement in terrorist attacks in which Israelis were killed. The second condition is that the PA security forces in the West Bank be supplied with new weapons.
Molcho reportedly told Erekat that Israel would make no gestures before a Netanyahu-Abbas meeting took place, but would agree to announce such concessions after, or perhaps during such an encounter.
The Israeli sources and the diplomats told Haaretz that Netanyahu is apparently willing to begin a gradual release of the prisoners the Palestinians want freed, beginning with 25 and releasing the rest in four groups by the end of the year. Netanyahu is also said to be willing to provide weapons to the Palestinian security forces, particularly because the IDF supports such a move.
Netanyahu’s office has so far denied that negotiations were underway with Abbas over a meeting in exchange for a prisoner release or other gestures. However, the PM said last week during a meeting of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee that he could see the Palestinians were increasingly ready for talks with Israel, even if they would not be defined as diplomatic negotiations.