Jim Young/AFP/Getty

Palestinian official: Israel to renege on prisoner deal

US Secretary of State John Kerry is in a last-minute bid to salvage talks as Palestinians threaten to walk away

Israel plans to renege on a commitment to release a fourth group of Palestinian prisoners on Saturday, a move that delivers another blow to U.S.-brokered talks between the two sides, a Palestinian official told Agence France-Presse on Friday.

"Israel has refused to commit to the names that were agreed upon of prisoners held by Israel since before the 1993 Oslo agreements," said Jibril Rajub, a senior member of Fatah, the political party of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Israeli officials had no immediate comment.

Under the U.S.-brokered deal that relaunched negotiations between the two sides last July, Israel had said it would release 104 Palestinians in exchange for the Palestinians’ not pressing their statehood claims at the United Nations.

Israel has so far freed 78 prisoners in three rounds, but said it would block the final release if the Palestinians refused to extend peace talks beyond April 29, the deadline U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry set for reaching a “final status” agreement.

Palestinian negotiators have threatened to walk away from the talks if the prisoners are not released.

However, Israeli ministers have said previously that the prisoner releases were conditional on progress in the talks, which had failed to materialize.

Many of the ministers have also balked at the inclusion of Palestinian citizens of Israel among the prisoners slated for release.

Rajub called the Israeli move a "slap in the face of the U.S. administration and its efforts," and said the Palestinians would resume their international diplomatic offensive.

"Not releasing the prisoners will mark the beginning of the efforts in the international community to challenge the legality of the occupation," he said.

Israel's move follows an announcement by Arab leaders on Wednesday that blamed Israel for a lack of progress in the talks and rejected calls by Israel to recognize it as a Jewish state.

Israel has made the success of negotiations conditional on Palestinians’ recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. Palestinians fear the label would negate their historical claim to the land and lead to discrimination against Israel’s sizable Palestinian minority.

In a bid to salvage negotiations, Kerry broke away from a visit to Italy on Wednesday to meet with Abbas in Jordan.

Kerry also spoke by telephone with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the three-hour flight from Rome, U.S. officials said.

The two were set to speak again after Kerry dined with Abbas.

The talks between Israelis and Palestinians have been teetering on the brink of collapse. As the April deadline approaches, U.S. officials have scaled back their ambitions, saying they are now trying to forge a "framework for negotiations" by then.

Wire services

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