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Was Israel’s Prisoner Release Really Necessary?

Looking at Bibi’s big gambit and the new round of peace negotiations

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Israeli's holding pictures of their loved ones, killed by Palestinians, protest against the planned release of 104 veteran Palestinian and Israeli-Arab prisoners, in front of the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem on July 28, 2013.(MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images)

This evening in Washington, D.C., the first direct peace talks in three years will convene between Israeli and Palestinian representatives. The purpose of the high-level meeting, to be led by Israeli justice minister Tzipi Livni and Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, is to (hopefully) iron out a framework for the next few months of obstacle-ridden talks that few believe will succeed. Arriving at this stage was a feat in and of itself, requiring months of shuttling and face-to-face wrangling by Secretary of State John Kerry, who was derided for everything from his Sisyphean dedication/myopic focus to his predilection for poultry-based shawarma.

But all the whimsy and dismissal that characterized public reaction to the resumption of talks evaporated over the weekend when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that Israel would release 104 Palestinian prisoners to meet a Palestinian precondition for the meetings.

The prisoners, most of whom have served at least 20 years for deadly attacks on Israelis, are to be freed in groups. The pace of the releases will depend on progress in the talks.

Criticism of the highly unpopular move was swift and stark. Among the most thundering was Dani Dayan, head of the Yesha Council and a noted opponent of a two-state solution. Dayan graphically recounted the horrific acts of a few of the terrorists slated for release before placing blame for the prisoner release at the feet of John Kerry.

The very notion of Palestinian preconditions before even reaching the negotiating table, to enter a process in which they would be the potential beneficiaries – is utterly absurd. But when it involves the release of some of the most vicious terrorists of our time, it becomes obscene. And that obscenity has been made possible by none other then the US Secretary of State.

Dayan, like others made inflexible by fanaticism, had the luxury of not having to produce an alternative to the prisoner release. But alternatives there were. Two more notable and widely reported possibilities were a freeze in settlement building (to which Israel submitted before the fruitless talks of 2010) and the use of the 1967 borders as a basis for negotiations. The alternatives had their perks: a moratorium on settlements, in addition to being good for the long-term health of the state, can be (and has been) undone and the ’67 borders are what past American presidents from both parties and the international community all consider to be the basis for a two-state solution. The only perk of the prisoner release, presumably, is that it will be incremental.

In the meantime, debate is raging in Israel about whether this was Netanyahu going big or going soft, leaning center or veering right. David Horovitz of the Times of Israel, characterized the move as the “wrong capitulation” and domestically problematic.

In agreeing to the prisoner releases, Netanyahu appears to have crossed a dramatic political line. Already more dovish than most of the Likud Knesset faction by virtue of his rhetorical commitment to Palestinian statehood, the prime minister finds himself increasingly at odds with his party for deepening his involvement in the diplomatic process, but the self-styled “deeply painful decision” to order the freeing of the pre-Oslo inmates seems likely to stretch the Netanyahu-Likud relationship to the breaking point. It surely won’t be long before loud voices in the Likud rank and file complain that they thought they were electing a right-wing prime minister and have instead found themselves with a Rabin-lite.

Meanwhile, Haviv Rettig Gur said the move proved that Bibi “runs the show in Jerusalem.” Over at Haaretz, Barak Ravid labeled the move “weak” and deciphered it as proof that Netanyahu is in the thrall of the pro-settler, right-wing elements of his coalition.

Netanyahu is acting like a prisoner of his right-wing government, a hostage of his coalition partners and a captive of his party. While he understands the strategic dangers Israel may face in the absence of a peace process with the Palestinians, he is dragged into it kicking and screaming rather than lead the country with all his might. Netanyahu has many escape routes out of this prison, on which he would go down in history as the one who made the two-state solution a reality. The question that remains yet unanswered is whether his biggest enemy on the way to fulfilling that task would be none other than Netanyahu himself.

To this potpourri of prognostication, I’ll add three quick thoughts:

The first is that this move sends the wrong message, namely that “what it comes down to is that the Prime Minister preferred remodeling permits for the residents of Beit-El over keeping prisoners behind bars.”

The second is that this move sends the wrong message, namely that after years of calls for peace talks with no preconditions (with American presidential backing as recently as March), to bend on a prisoner release (even if serious criminals have been released for less in the past) makes Israel’s tough talk look like bluster, which could have ramifications with regard to Iran and its nuclear program and could impact future dealings with groups like Hamas should talks fail and violence resume.

The third is that these previous two thoughts aren’t worth fretting about if the peace talks yield an agreement.

Previous: Israeli-Palestinian Peace Talks to Resume
The Forgotten Costs of the Failed Peace Talks

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Was Israel’s Prisoner Release Really Necessary?

Looking at Bibi’s big gambit and the new round of peace negotiations

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