The Jerusalem Post
JERUSALEM (August 29) – Just days before US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visits the region, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators met again last night to try and break the impasse over the question of prisoner releases and clinch a deal on implementation of the Wye River Memorandum.
An Israeli official said the meeting, which was held at an undisclosed location, was a crucial one.
"We are moving down to the wire," the official said. "Either the next day or two will bring agreement – or they will not. We can remain in limbo no longer."
Prime Minister Ehud Barak is to report to the cabinet today on the progress achieved in talks with the Palestinians.
Meanwhile, Albright cautioned against expectations that there would be a signing ceremony in Alexandria, Egypt this Thursday.
Speaking to reporters Friday after meeting Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat’s deputy, Mahmoud Abbas, at her Georgetown townhouse, Albright said: "I don’t want to predict, because here you always have to be careful. It’s obviously up to them [the Israelis and Palestinians]."
Diplomatic sources said in Washington that a memorandum of understanding between the two sides could be signed on Thursday in Alexandria, with Albright attending.
Abbas said the Palestinians hoped to reach an agreement in the near future.
"So far there are issues which are still under discussion and they are important issues which we hope to overcome," he said. "The prisoner issue is very, very important to us and we hope to reach an agreement with the Israelis about it."
Within the last few weeks, the sides have reached agreement on most of the issues on the table – including a revised timetable for implementing the withdrawals, the opening of the safe passage route from Gaza to Hebron, matters of economic cooperation, and the start of construction on the Gaza Port – but agreement on the type of prisoners to be released by Israel has continued to elude the negotiators.
The Palestinians demand that security prisoners – whom they call political – be released, while the government continues to insist it will not release certain categories of prisoners, such as anyone who committed murder or belongs to a rejectionist group.
However, PA officials say Israel and the Palestinians are quietly negotiating the release of some pre-Oslo Fatah prisoners, who were accessories to, but not directly involved in, terror attacks. Israel has not commented on this. Security sources say General Security Service head Ami Ayalon backs such releases.
Hisham Abdel Razek, the Palestinian Authority official in charge of the prisoner issue, and Preventive Security chief Mohammed Dahlan insist that the prisoner issue be resolved in the talks going on between Israeli negotiator Gilad Sher and Erekat. Other PA officials believe that only PA Chairman Yasser Arafat and Prime Minister Ehud Barak can resolve the issue.
Under the Wye provisions, 750 Palestinian prisoners are to be released. In November, Israel released 250, of whom 98 were security prisoners, and the remainder petty criminals.
Israel reserves the right to release more petty criminals among the 500 it plans to free in two batches over the next two months, on grounds it does not have enough security prisoners who fit its criteria for release.
In contrast, the Palestinians want a total of 650 security prisoners let out.
Arafat told his cabinet on Friday that he will not compromise on the prisoner issue.