Israel agrees to release prisoners, will resume talks with Palestinians

Israeli and Palestinian negotiators will meet in Washington today to resume peace talks after Israel met a demand to release 104 Palestinian prisoners. Although the talks are preliminary, they will be the first substantive negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians in five years. The Israeli government’s decision to release the prisoners was a controversial one:

Calling the prisoner decision “painful for the entire nation,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu won the approval of his divided cabinet earlier Sunday to release the Palestinian inmates, many convicted of killing Israelis, to help restart peace talks brokered by U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry.

The list of prisoners who may be released in coming days includes militants who threw firebombs, in one case at a bus carrying children; stabbed and shot civilians, including women, elderly Jews and suspected Palestinian collaborators; and ambushed and killed border guards, police officers, security agents and soldiers. All of them have been in prison for at least two decades; some were serving life sentences.

The Israeli public views these prisoners as terrorists who have blood on their hands. Palestinians see them as freedom fighters struggling to reclaim their homeland and oust the occupiers. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and his leadership refused to return to the negotiating table without their release.

Regardless of whether it is a grudging gesture of goodwill, diplomatic blackmail or something in between, Netanyahu’s move is a major concession to Kerry and the Palestinians.

In a sign of Israeli divisions over the prisoner release, the vote among Netanyahu’s cabinet ministers was 13 to 7, with two abstentions. . . .

More prisoners would be freed as negotiations continue, though Netanyahu warned that “every Palestinian provocation will result in halting of the prisoner-

release process.”

The Israeli prime minister called the prisoners he was about to release “depraved people, even if most of them have been in prison for over 20 years.”

This is not the first time that Netanyahu has struck such a deal. In 2011, the Israeli government traded about 1,000 Palestinian and Arab Israeli prisoners for the release of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier abducted by Hamas militants near the Kerem Shalom crossing into the Gaza Strip in 2006. He had been held for five years.

Although most polls show that a majority of Israelis support the peace process, releasing prisoners is unpopular across the political spectrum.

“From time to time, prime ministers are called on to make decisions that go against public opinion — when the matter is important for the country,” Netanyahu said in the open letter. He added: “It seems to me that it is very important for the State of Israel to enter into a diplomatic process.”

The prime minister said dramatic changes in the region — in Egypt, Syria and Iran — create not only challenges but also “considerable opportunities for us” to strike a deal with the Palestinians.

Netanyahu stressed that although he agreed to release prisoners — and to do so only after talks begin — he rejected a Palestinian demand for a freeze on new construction in the Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

According to Israeli media, Netanyahu told Kerry that over the next nine months, as many as 1,000 new units may be approved for construction in West Bank and East Jerusalem settlements.

Netanyahu was silent on a third Palestinian demand — that negotiations about borders for a future Palestinian state begin with the pre-1967 armistice lines.

William Booth

Kerry is expected to appoint Martin Indyk, the former U.S. ambassador to Israel, to supervise the negotiations:

Kerry plans to name Indyk to be his point man for the talks in a State Department announcement Monday, a day after he announced the resumption of the long-stalled negotiations, the officials said. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly before the Kerry announcement.

Indyk, currently at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington, served as former President Bill Clinton’s ambassador to Israel and was a key part of the failed 2000 Camp David peace talks. He was also a special assistant to Clinton and senior director for Near East and South Asian affairs at the National Security Council from 1993 to 1995. And he served as Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern affairs in the State Department from 1997 to 2000. . . .

Kerry spent much of his first six months as America’s top diplomat in frenetic diplomacy trying to get the two sides to agree to resume peace talks that broke down in 2008. Since February, he has made six trips to the region shuttling between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to try to cajole them into returning to negotiations.

Associated Press

Opinion writer Jennifer Rubin questions the decision to release the prisoners:

Israel gets nothing from this move. No one knowledgeable about the Middle East, including the Israeli government, thinks the “peace process” talks are going anywhere. Ire is focusing on the Obama administration. Did it arm-twist Netanyahu with some sort of ultimatum? It seems unlikely that Netanyahu could have extracted anything concrete from the administration on the issue he worries most about, Iran.

The other possibility is that this is an exchange for the Palestinians not returning to the United Nations to seek recognition and for admonition to various U.N.-related entities. If so, this is merely rewarding the Palestinians’ bad behavior (that violates their existing obligations) and relieving them and the United Nations of the consequences of their decisions (e.g. cutting off U.S. aid for entities that let the Palestinian Authority in).

In any event, the Israelis are trading something tangible — its credibility on terrorism and the safety of its citizens — for something negligible. When the talks go nowhere, as they inevitably will, what then? Some Palestinian murderers will be back on the street, the Palestinians will have given up nothing, and the disappointment from raised expectations will carry the risk of another intifada. On this one, the United States should never have asked and the Israelis were shortsighted, at the very least, in agreeing to go along.

Jennifer Rubin

Below, see images of Israeli and Palestinian responses to the announcement that talks would resume.

Max Ehrenfreund is a blogger on the Financial desk and writes for Know More and Wonkblog.
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