JERUSALEM (May. 27)
Israel is hoping its decision to release 280 Palestinians from prison early will be seen as a sign of good will in advance of the resumption next month in Washington of peace talks with the Palestinians.
Officially, the move, which was announced by the Defense Ministry on Wednesday, is a gesture timed to coincide with the Moslem Id al-Adha festival taking place next week.
But observers say the government also hopes the step will improve the atmosphere between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators in Washington.
The list of the released prisoners was approved in a meeting attended by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Police Minister Moshe Shahal, Israel Defense Force Deputy Chief of Staff Amnon Shahak, the head of the Shin Bet security agency and the IDF coordinator for activities in the administered territories, Maj. Gen. Danny Rothschild.
None of the Palestinians being released over the next few days participated in any violent activities leading to injuries or deaths, and the majority have already completed most of their prison terms. Some on the list are detainees who had not yet been tried.
This gesture, as well as the decision last week to allow residents of the territories to enter Jerusalem for prayers on the Temple Mount, came amid growing optimism here that the Palestinians will return to the talks despite their stated ambivalence about doing so.
It is also expected that the Americans will try to bridge the gap between the Palestinians and the Israelis before the talks begin.
MOVED BEYOND ‘SOUL-SEARCHING’
But the Palestinian delegation to the peace talks has yet to respond to an American invitation to come to Washington for “consultations” aimed at hammering out a joint Israeli-Palestinian statement of principles that would help guide the next round of talks.
Dr. Haidar Abdel-Shafi, head of the Palestinian delegation, said that in his view, there is no reason for any crisis in the talks. He said there could be no excuse for not achieving progress in the talks, because peace is just as important for the Israelis as for the Palestinians.
Eitan Bentzur, deputy head of the Israeli delegation to the talks with the Palestinians, expressed satisfaction with Abdel-Shafi’s statement, saying it is an indication that the Palestinians have moved beyond the stage of “soul-searching” they announced at the end of the ninth round of talks Bentzur said the comment showed that the Palestinians are interested in continuing the talks.
Differences remain, however, within the Palestinian camp. Representatives of the Palestinian leftist groups met this week in Jerusalem and called for “a dialogue of all Palestinian trends” to work out a joint document that would guide, and limit, the Palestinian delegation.
Speakers at the conference called for the Palestinians to suspend the peace talks until such a national agreement is worked out.