The United States cannot stop a Palestinian campaign to the United Nations for statehood should peace talks with Israel fail, American diplomats told The Washington Post on Saturday.
The Obama administration has been working to salvage the peace talks that have been tittering on the brink of collapse for weeks, after Israel refused to released the fourth and final group of Palestinian security prisoners on Saturday.
Palestinian Minister of Prisoner Affairs Issa Qaraqae told AFP that "today the prisoners will not be released... maybe in the coming days."
"There are efforts to solve the crisis and I believe that in 24 hours everything will be clearer," he added.
If negotiations continue, it is possible that the prisoner release will be postpone until the end of April.
Jibril Rajub, a member of Fatah's central committee, told AFP Friday that "the Israeli government has informed us through the American mediator that it will not abide with its commitment to release the fourth batch of Palestinian prisoners scheduled for tomorrow."
"Israel has refused to commit to the names that were agreed upon of prisoners held by Israel since before the 1993 Oslo agreements," he added.
He 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.
If Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas agrees to postpone the release, he may demand more concessions of Israel.
The Palestinians have been repeatedly threatening to abandon peace talks if Israel does not release the prisoners, some of which were convicted of terror crimes against Israeli citizens. The Americans, led by Secretary of State John Kerry, have been trying to prevent that by reaching a commitment from Israel to either free the prisoners as promised, or by reaching a new compromise.
An editorial published in The New York Times warned Abbas and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to "think carefully" before they pass up this opportunity for peace, because they will have to shoulder the blame should the talks fail. If the two sides can't reach an agreement on a framework to continue talks, the US should stick to its principles by setting the borders according to the 1967 lines, and recognizing Jerusalem as the joint capital of both states, the Times' editorial urged.
The Americans are demanding that Israel shows flexibility and have raised several options to do so, among them a "gesture" release of prisoners who have been imprisoned for a very long time, or those who are similar to other prisoners previously freed. At present, it is still unclear how many prisoners would be included in such a "gesture."
Israel is examining the different options and Israeli officials said that "the Palestinians need to continue negotiations if they want a prisoners release. Israel is prepared to show certain flexibility to allow that to happen. We have to be patient and see where this goes."
Israel has committed to releasing 104 Palestinian security prisoners who were jailed prior to the 1993 Oslo Accords. The names on the fourth group's list are the hard core of prisoners, many of which were convicted of very serious crimes. Israel has previously cautioned that this release will not go ahead as planned if the Palestinians refuse to continue talks beyond the April 29 deadline.
On Saturday morning, the London-based Arabic Al-Hayat newspaper quoted western diplomats as saying that Kerry was trying to overcome the impasse over the recognition of Israel as a "Jewish state" by changing the definition to "the homeland of the Jewish people." In return, the Palestinians would have to agree to a Palestinian capital in a part of East Jerusalem and not all of it. According to the report, the Palestinians have rejected that proposal as well.
On Friday, Palestinian news agency Ma'an quoted Palestinian Minister of Prisoners' Affairs Issa Qaraqe as saying that the release was crucial for any future progress in the peace talks and served as a test of Israel's reliability in the peace process.
"Israel has been playing an ugly game of blackmail ... using Palestinian prisoners as a pressure tool to obtain political gains, which we completely reject," Ma'an quoted Qaraqe as saying.
Qaraqe said that he holds Israel responsible for the consequences of not releasing the prisoners on time, warning of the "anger" in the Palestinian street.
Since the beginning of peace talks in July, Israel has released 78 pre-Oslo prisoners in three groups. For the fourth group, the Palestinians demanded to release 14 Arab-Israeli terrorists, but Jerusalem insists it did not commit to such a demand.
Correction: A previous version of this story mistakenly quoted American officials as saying they "won't be able to" stop the Palestinian UN bid should talks fail. The headline was now corrected to "can't stop."