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Israel's Reluctance on Prisoner Release Threatens Peace Talks

Israelis hold placards depicting people who were killed in pro-Palestinian attacks during a protest against the release of Palestinian prisoners, outside Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's residence in Jerusalem, Mar. 26, 2014.
U.S. officials are trying to salvage Mideast peace talks threatened by Israeli demands that Palestinians agree to extend the process before Israel releases more prisoners. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry are expected to discuss the peace process with King Abdullah in Saudi Arabia.

U.S. mediators are in Israel and the West Bank meeting with Israeli and Palestinian officials ahead of the expected prisoner release. With no Cabinet meeting scheduled to vote on that release, Israel will miss Saturday's deadline to set free the fourth and last group of detainees agreed to in this process.

The question now is whether they will be released at all and what happens to the peace process if they are not.

Israeli leaders want the talks extended before the prisoner release, arguing that Palestinians will have no incentive to continue with the peace process once the detainees are freed. Palestinians say they will quit the talks now if Israel refuses to release the prisoners, among them Israeli Arabs detained before the 1993 Oslo peace accord.

In a written statement, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki reaffirmed what Washington saw as Israel's prior commitment on prisoners, saying "At the beginning of these negotiations, the Palestinians agreed to not undertake action at international organizations, and the Israelis agreed to release a number of pre-Oslo prisoners."

She said Secretary Kerry and chief U.S. negotiator Martin Indyk "were still working intensively with the parties on these issues," but gave no further details.

When Secretary Kerry launched nine months of peace talks eight months ago, he said the goal was a comprehensive, two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The goal now is to reach a framework for how those talks might continue beyond the end of April.

In a meeting Wednesday with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and in telephone conversations this week with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Secretary Kerry has been trying to determine what each side might be willing to do if the talks break down.