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Analysis

Night moves

By releasing prisoners under cover of darkness and keeping mum during talks, Netanyahu and Abbas are trying to avoid domestic headaches, but both are still hostages

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Palestinians celebrate and wave green Hamas and yellow Fatah flags as they wait for the released prisoners at a checkpoint at the entrance of Beit Hanoun between the northern Gaza Strip and Israel on Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2013. (photo credit: AP photo/Hatem Moussa)
Palestinians celebrate and wave green Hamas and yellow Fatah flags as they wait for the released prisoners at a checkpoint at the entrance of Beit Hanoun between the northern Gaza Strip and Israel on Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2013. (photo credit: AP photo/Hatem Moussa)

Like thieves in the night, the Palestinian Authority and Israel have arrived at the resumption of permanent settlement negotiations in Jerusalem. The negotiation teams were meeting at an unknown time and location. One is left to imagine head Israeli negotiator Tzipi Livni and her colleague Saeb Erekat stealing away to an isolated room in a Jerusalem hotel in an attempt to hide the negotiations from the public eye.

Each side has its own reasons for the secrecy. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu doesn’t want problems at home, from inside the Likud or other right-wing parties, and therefore the discussions with the PA are being given the minimum public attention by him and those close to him.

This also relates to the decision to release the 26 Palestinian prisoners at 1 a.m. What began as a gesture to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to smooth the resumption of talks became, as the release neared, a huge headache for the Israeli government thanks to the media portrayal of the move as an agreement to release murderers simply so that talks with the Palestinians can start.

Instead of facing the cameras and explaining the logic behind the release (the convicts were held since before the Oslo agreements; their release will strengthen Abbas), the Israeli side opted for concealment. Some media outlets, citing government sources in Jerusalem, said that the small-hours timing of the release was designed to prevent celebrations and festivities on the Palestinian side. But there were still celebrations, albeit small ones. It seems that the strange timing of the release — when Hamas terrorists were transferred to the Palestinians in the context of the Shalit deal, it was done in broad daylight before a crowd of thousands of Hamas supporters — was intended mainly to keep the Israeli public from seeing the pictures and possibly to weaken criticism of the prime minister coming from the right.

On the Palestinian side, they are starting to understand the problem they’re facing. The Israeli government several days ago announced plans to build in the settlement blocs, apparently with the understanding of the US administration. These announcements are damaging primarily to the Palestinian Authority and they made Abbas, who gave up his demand to freeze settlement construction, appear especially ridiculous.

In a sense, Abbas has now become a hostage. If he stops the negotiations with Israel over building in the settlements, he cuts off the 78 senior prisoners remaining in Israeli jails (of the 104 total slated to be released) and punishes them with continued imprisonment. If the discussions are not productive and building continues (as the Israeli side brags it will), he will be open to especially harsh criticism, not only from Hamas but also from the Palestinian public. Hence, his desire to hide from the media any notion of celebrations on the resumption of discussions on a permanent settlement.

Much speculation was heard in Israel about Netanyahu’s agreement (and that of the religious-nationalist Jewish Home party) to release the prisoners. One explanation floating around, mainly due to the current visit of Martin Dempsey, the US chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is that behind the scenes a deal was worked out between Washington and Jerusalem in which the Israelis agree to play nicely with the Palestinians and the American government tackles the Iranian problem or gives Israel a green light to operate.

So far, there is nothing to confirm this hypothesis. On the contrary, Dempsey, who met with Netanyahu, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and IDF head Benny Gantz, is known as someone who is not enthusiastic about a possible American or Israeli strike on Iran. It might even be that Dempsey was sent here mainly to request Israel be patient and not engage in any military adventures.

Senior Israeli officials also deny that any such agreement exists (however credible denial may be) and the Israeli side is far from demonstrating a real interest in promoting the negotiations with the Palestinians. It is said by some Israeli sources that the Palestinian issue barely came up during the talks with Dempsey, and the main issues were Syria, Sinai and Iran.

A more logical explanation for permitting the release of prisoners is that Netanyahu understands that the renewal of peace talks will give Israel, at least in part, breathing space in the international arena, with minimal damage.

And, what about the possibility of a dramatic diplomatic breakthrough with the Palestinians? Here, there is a rare Israeli-Palestinian consensus. On Tuesday, Ya’alon said he was skeptical about the talks’ chances of success. He is not alone. Everyone is skeptical.

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