Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu does not want to alienate the Obama administration as he grapples with the potential existential threat to Israel posed by Iran’s relentless progress toward nuclear weapons capability.
Netanyahu does not want to see Israel blamed for the failure of US Secretary of State John Kerry’s relentless efforts over six visits to the Middle East to restart peace negotiations with the Palestinians.
And Netanyahu, while entirely unconvinced that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas intends to take viable positions on the contours and modalities of a Palestinian state when those negotiations resume, is adamant that Israel must not return to what he considers indefensible pre-1967 lines and insists on seeking to drive a harder territorial bargain than his predecessor Ehud Olmert if the talks do make some headway.
These are among the central factors that led Netanyahu in the last few days to capitulate to the Palestinian demand to release more than 100 hardcore terror convicts — including men who planned and executed some of the most brutal acts of violence against Israelis in the years before the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993.
In an open letter to the Israeli public on Saturday night, Netanyahu defended the volte face, asserting that sometimes prime ministers have to take decisions that fly in the face of public opinion “for the good of the country.”
There were doubtless other factors, along with the arguments cited above, that propelled him to a decision which, had he been serving in the opposition, he would have strenuously opposed.
He must have told himself that releasing prisoners in an arrangement with Abbas, designed to give a boost to peace hopes, was a far more constructive action than surrendering to the blackmail by Hamas that saw him free more than 1,000 Palestinian security prisoners to secure the freedom of hostage soldier Gilad Shalit less than two years ago. That was a vindication of Hamas’s terrorism, albeit to save a precious life and honor Israel’s commitment to its soldiers, while this might be construed as a reward for Abbas’s efforts to fight terror in the West Bank and the PA president’s ostensible interest in an accord.
He would likely have consoled himself, too, with the assurances of the Shin Bet security service and the IDF that Israel’s security establishment could cope with the releases of such hardened killers — that while some would probably seek to return to terrorism, their efforts could be thwarted.
The counterarguments are powerful, however.
As Netanyahu acknowledged in his open letter, the imminent releases make a mockery of the concept of justice. They undermine the Israeli judicial system, which tried, convicted and jailed these offenders. They constitute a betrayal of the bereaved families, who will now see the killers of their loved ones going free and being celebrated as heroes on their return home. They undermine the ongoing operations by the security services to track down and arrest further would-be terror perpetrators, at considerable personal risk. All of which combines to encourage further acts of terrorism — since the would-be killers can reasonably assume that they will not pay an intolerable price should they succeed in murdering Israelis.
Furthermore, while a more powerful case could be made for freeing these hardcore convicts at the successful culmination of a negotiating process — if and when the sides were able to agree on a permanent end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — these releases are set to take place in the early stages of negotiation, as a reward simply for coming to the table, with no guarantee of success in the talks and a track record of failure. The very fact that Abbas demanded the release of these murderers, under intense pressure from the Palestinian “street,” says a great deal, too, none of it new and all of it worrying, about attitudes to Israel and Israeli lives among the Palestinians.
The Palestinian leadership had three preconditions for returning to negotiations: the release of the pre-Oslo prisoners; a halt to settlement expansion; and a commitment from Israel to negotiate the borders of a Palestinian state on the basis of the pre-1967 lines.
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.
Internal Likud dissent aside, however, the concern is that Netanyahu has chosen the wrong one of the Abbas preconditions — the most damaging — on which to concede. By definition, talks on Palestinian statehood take place on the basis of the pre-1967 lines, since those are the limits of what the international community considers to be legitimate Israeli sovereign territory. And a settlement freeze is instantly reversible if negotiations collapse. Not so the release of callous, largely unrepentant murderers. Not so the damage to the Israeli rule of law.
It may be that Netanyahu is still betting that the releases will not come to pass — that the talks will collapse before the phases of the prisoner releases are completed and the worst of the offenders are set free. That would seem to be an improbable gamble, however, and would not change the fact that the prime minister has proved ready to do something for which he would unquestionably have castigated any other prime minister.
Oh, and so long as Netanyahu insists on expanding settlements, Israel will be blamed for the collapse of peace talks anyway.