The Worst Choice of All

The test of leadership is making “tough decisions,” Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu told his Cabinet ministers Sunday before they voted to free the murderers of Rachel Weiss and her three children, Hy”d, and more than 100 others. But it’s more than that. It’s about making the right tough decisions, and on that score, the government failed miserably to show true leadership.

To be fair, the Cabinet truly faced a tough decision. Israel cannot afford to thumb its nose at Secretary of State John Kerry, nor to be portrayed as the obstinate party in the administration’s efforts to convene peace talks. While it is always a strategic interest to be on good terms with Washington, Israel’s only reliable ally, never has this been more true than now, with the threats being posed by Iran, Syria and so on.

However, as Hamodia’s defense correspondent A. Pe’er reported, Kerry didn’t insist on a prisoner release. Instead, he gave Netanyahu a list of concessions that would be needed, in his view, to get PA chairman Mahmoud Abbas back to the negotiating table, and the prime minister chose to release prisoners, which is not only immoral and harmful to national security but also dooms the talks to failure.

It isn’t that prisoner releases are intrinsically immoral. When two parties that were at war are on the verge of signing a peace agreement, there is room to say that prisoners on both sides should be released in the spirit of goodwill and putting the past behind.

But in this case, we’re nowhere near concluding any peace deal. There is no goodwill, no trust, no interest on the Palestinians’ part to recognize Israel as a Jewish country. What’s more, the claim that the Palestinian terrorists were only “soldiers” in the Palestinian struggle for independence doesn’t hold water. There are rules that govern the behavior of soldiers, even in wartime, and these terrorists were guilty of crimes against humanity that are not pardonable in any circumstances. (Can anyone imagine the government releasing the two terrorists who murdered the Fogel family in Itamar and whose only regret was that had left two children alive? After Sunday’s decision, the answer is not so obvious.)

As far as national security is concerned, it’s true that the General Security Service believes that the terrorists to be released in this deal are old-timers who aren’t likely to return to their previous ways. But Israel is with its own hands flooding the Palestinian street with “heroes,” role models who will share their stories of victory over the enemy — culminating in their release — and who will advise the younger generation how to continue the “national struggle.”

Sunday’s decision makes a mockery of Israel’s judiciary; it turns a life sentence, or two or three, from a deterrent to a joke. It may be that the old-timers who are being released want to retire; but the younger generation, encouraged by their early release, has plenty of energy and will have new motivation to pursue terrorism.

Diplomatically, the decision was a disaster. In agreeing to pay such a huge price just to begin direct talks with Abbas, Netanyahu signaled his utter desperation. And in any deal, whether it’s the sale of a property or the acquisition of peace, the desperate party has the weaker hand.

Netanyahu has turned Abbas, a failed leader by any measure, into a powerhouse. After obtaining such a huge concession for just agreeing to show up to at talks, there’s no way he’s going to give in on his “core” demands concerning Yerushalayim, refugees and final borders for a final peace deal. As for Netanyahu’s insistence that Abbas recognize Israel as a Jewish state, there is nothing to think about, let alone talk about.

The peace talks that began this week have two goals, one stated, one not. The stated goal is, of course, to reach a final peace deal that resolves the “Palestinian problem” (which no one believes will happen, not even special U.S. envoy Martin Indyk).

The unstated goal for Israel and the Palestinians is to get through the next year or so without being blamed for the talks’ collapse.

Netanyahu had to do something this week toward this latter goal, but he didn’t have to agree to release prisoners. He could have agreed to a building freeze or to a statement declaring that the negotiations would proceed on the basis of the 1967 borders. Either one would have satisfied Abbas, and therefore Kerry.

The 1967 borders, considering demographics and security needs, are obviously a non-starter. But why didn’t he agree to a building freeze, especially since everyone knows that such a freeze has been in place for more than seven months?

True, it would have been politically embarrassing to formally agree to a freeze after promising that he wouldn’t agree to any preconditions. But he could have saved his honor by explaining that leadership requires making “tough decisions.”

At least that would have been the right tough decision.