Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu undoubtedly had a hard time at the Sunday cabinet meeting convincing his ministers that it is in Israel’s interest to release 104 terrorists from prison in the interests of advancing peace talks with the Palestinians. These are people who were arrested and found guilty by Israeli courts of some of the most brutal, deadly attacks ever perpetrated against Israeli men, women and children in the years leading up to the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993.
But he succeeded: Thirteen cabinet ministers voted in favor, seven against and two abstained.
“This moment is not easy for me. It is not easy for the ministers. It is not easy especially for the families, the bereaved families, whose heart I understand,” Netanyahu said. “But there are moments in which tough decisions must be made for the good of the country and this is one of those moments.”
Netanyahu – who in his political career has written clearly and spoken out publicly against releasing terrorists – is well aware of how problematic the move is. Difficulties are multiplied when Israel receives nothing tangible in return, as appears to be the case in the present deal.
Admittedly, there may be several factors mitigating in favor of the prisoner release. Previous deals, such as the 2011 Gilad Schalit prisoner swap or the 2008 exchange for the bodies of Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, were made with terrorist organizations that called for the destruction of Israel and did not hide the fact that they were actively working toward that end.
In contrast, the present concession is being made to the Palestinian Authority, which at least ostensibly has renounced terrorism and has accepted in principle a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
And while the Obama administration has never explicitly linked progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front to support for Israel’s right to defend itself against the existential threat posed by Iran’s relentless nuclear march, Netanyahu does not want to alienate the White House at a time when the Iranian regime is poised to reach nuclear “breakout” capability.
What’s more, Netanyahu wants to avoid a situation in which Israel is blamed for torpedoing hopes for the renewal of peace negotiations with the Palestinians. This is particular pertinent after US Secretary of State John Kerry invested so much time and energy in reviving the long-stalled talks. The very fact that Kerry has shuttled back and forth six times generates its own indirect pressure on Israel.
Netanyahu has also received the assurances of the Shin Bet and the IDF that Israel’s security establishment can thwart any future dangers created by the release of experienced terrorists.
Nevertheless, the agreement to release 104 terrorists at such an early stage seems premature. Actual negotiations have not even begun and even the “contours and modalities” of the future talks have yet to be hammered out.
Based on the track record for past talks, there is a good chance that terrorists will be released for naught. Freeing these hardcore convicts should come, if ever, at the end of the peace process when the Palestinians have agreed to live in peace alongside a Jewish state.
The fact that even “moderate” Palestinian leaders seem obsessed with securing the freedom of prisoners convicted of murdering Jewish civilians and that these terrorists are regularly glorified as heroes reflects a great deal about their attitudes.
None of this bodes well for talks whose success depends on Palestinians being reconciled to Israel’s existence.
Israel should not have to foot the bill for the failure of the Palestinian leadership to prepare its people for peace with the Jewish state. And no Israeli who has already experienced the unfathomable pain of knowing that another person intentionally killed a loved one should be forced to endure the additional torture of seeing that murderer go free in exchange for the dubious prospect of a renewed peace process.
What’s more, by caving in to the Palestinian demand to pardon terrorists convicted of murdering innocent civilians, Israel blurs the clear differentiation that must be made between legitimate political activity used by Palestinians in pursuit of self-determination and the illegitimate use of terrorism to further their political goals.
Resuming negotiations toward a two-state solution is no more an Israeli interest than it is a Palestinian interest.
Israel should not have been forced to pay such a hefty price, nor should it have agreed to do so.
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