RAMALLAH - A senior Israeli official said Saturday that Israel was willing to free the fourth group of Palestinian security prisoners, but the Palestinians were placing obstacles in the way.
"Israel is interested in continuing the peace talks with the Palestinians and is prepared to carry out the fourth stage of the release of convicted terrorists," he told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"But the Palestinians are creating difficulties with this when they say that the moment after the release of the prisoners they will stop the talks."
The fourth group of prisoners was scheduled to be released on March 29, but while there was no official update from the Israeli government, American mediators told the Palestinians the release will not go ahead on Saturday as planned, a Palestinian official told AFP on Friday.
Jibril Rajub, a member of Fatah's central committee, called the Israeli move a "slap in the face of the US administration and its efforts," and said the Palestinians would resume their international diplomatic offensive against Israel as a consequence.
"Not releasing the prisoners will mark the beginning of the efforts in the international community to challenge the legality of the occupation," he said.
Palestinian Minister of Prisoner Affairs Issa Qaraqae confirmed that the prisoners will not be released on Saturday, telling AFP "today the prisoners will not be released... maybe in the coming days."
"We told the families of the prisoners they would not be released today," he said.
"There are efforts to solve the crisis and I believe that in 24 hours everything will be clearer," he added.
Some 200 Palestinians demonstrated in front of the Ofer Prison near Ramallah Saturday evening, deploring the delay in the release.
Under the deal that relaunched peace talks last July, Israel agreed to release 104 Palestinian prisoners held since before the 1993 Oslo peace accords in exchange for the Palestinians not pressing their statehood claims at the United Nations.
So far, Israel has freed 78 prisoners in three batches but ministers had warned they would block the final release, which had been anticipated for Saturday, if the Palestinians refused to extend the talks beyond their April 29 deadline.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has not spelled out his terms for prolonging talks, saying only that he is not even prepared to discuss the issue until the prisoners are freed.
Another setback for the release is a Palestinian demand it includes Arab Israeli citizens, a demand hotly opposed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's far-right coalition partners and by hardliners within his own Likud party.
A survey conducted by the Palestinian Centre for Public Opinion on Saturday found that 87 percent of Palestinians believe the Palestinian leadership should renew its UN statehood efforts if the prisoners are not freed.
The prisoner release "is a prerequisite for any future progress of the negotiations," the center said, as the overwhelming majority of Palestinians consider it to be "the most crucial issue that must be treated in order to continue with the peace process."
The talks have been teetering on the brink of collapse, with Washington fighting an uphill battle to get the two sides to agree to a framework for continued negotiations until the end of the year.
US Secretary of State John Kerry met Abbas in Amman on Wednesday in a bid to salvage the talks, with US special envoy Martin Indyk meeting the Palestinian leader in Ramallah a day later.
On Friday, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki denied reports that negotiations had already collapsed.
"Any reports that suggest the talks are off are inaccurate," she told journalists.
"Ambassador Indyk and the negotiating team remain closely engaged with both parties on the ground and will continue to work over the coming days to help them bridge the gaps and determine the path forward."
Israeli media reported Netanyahu could give a green light to the prisoner release if the US frees Jonathan Pollard, who was arrested in Washington in 1985 and condemned to life imprisonment for spying on the United States for Israel.
Israel is not commenting on such reports, with Netanyahu spokesman Mark Regev saying only that in general the spy's fate is “often raised at high-level meetings between Israelis and Americans.”
On Wednesday, Psaki said "there are currently no plans to release Jonathan Pollard."