Israel, winner of every war and battle with its neighbors (some decisively; some by small margins), consistently comes to negotiating tables, hat in hand, evincing the persona of the losing side.
The recently started talks with the Palestinians are no different.
Prior to agreeing to engage in peace talks with Israel, the President of the Palestinian Authority (PA), Mahmoud Abbas, played the victor, presenting three demands that Israel would need to meet before the talks would commence: Israel must commit to negotiate the borders of a Palestinian state on the basis of the pre-1967 borders; a halt to all building in the “settlements”; Israel must release 104 prisoners being held since before the Oslo Accords in 1993, ALL of whom have blood on their hands. Many are mass murderers involved in the most brutal terrorist attacks against Israelis. Israel acquiesced to the last condition, adding its own condition that the release occur in four stages throughout the nine-month negotiation period, if the negotiations proceed.
David Horowitz, a well-known pundit here in Israel, wrote a superb editorial evaluating the three conditions. He opined that the release of the prisoners was the worst and least remediable of all options. He argued that, by definition, the talks on Palestinian statehood would take place on the basis of the pre-1967 lines, since these 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. So in effect either of these would come at no real expense. That is not, however, the case with a prisoner release. The damage to Israel’s rule of law by setting free terrorists, all of whom were tried in Israeli courts and convicted to life sentences, is incalculable and enduring. Once a terrorist is released there is no returning him, until he violates the law again, which is the most likely scenario as proven with previous prisoner releases, most recently in the Shalit exchange.
So why would Israel choose this point to concede to the Palestinians?
It may be that Netanyahu is betting that the talks will collapse before the phases of the prisoner release are completed, and that other than the initial release of 26, no other release will come to pass before the worst of the offenders are set free. That would seem to be an improbable gamble, as the pressure on Israel by the United States will be extraordinary, most of which will occur in private arm-twisting sessions.
It may be that Abbas independently realized the points made by Horowitz above and wanted something concrete for returning to negotiations. Remember, a jailbird in hand is worth two nebulous points.
Analysts have suggested Israel acceded to this point for two other reasons, raising Abbas’ stature in PA-controlled territories and gaining support from the Obama administration for an anticipated strike against Iran. Let’s examine these points. At first glance it would seem that the release of Palestinian prisoners boosts the standing of Mahmoud Abbas and “moderate” Palestinians and facilitates the resumption of peace talks.
There seem to be several schools of thought among the Palestinians as to why this is not necessarily the case. There is the “You Owed It to Me Anyway” school of thought, in which many Palestinians do not see Israel’s decision to free the 104 Palestinian terrorists who were imprisoned before the signing of the Oslo Accords two decades ago as a gesture on the part of Israel. Rather, they regard the Israeli move as something that Israel was supposed to have done anyway, many, many years ago. As Saeb Erekat, the chief PLO negotiator, explained: “This Israeli cabinet decision is an overdue step towards the implementation of the Sharm el-Sheikh agreement of 1999, whereby Israel committed to release all the pre-Oslo prisoners. We welcome this decision 14 years later.”
Erekat’s statement exposes the PA position that the prisoner release was not a goodwill gesture, but an overdue bill finally paid.
Then there is the “Drop in the Bucket” school of Palestinian thought, which sees the release of the 104 prisoners as a negligible achievement for Abbas because it constitutes barely 10% of the haul Hamas secured in return for releasing kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. “Israel is not doing anyone a favor by releasing 100 prisoners,” said a Fatah official in Ramallah. “While we welcome this decision, we do not see how it could help the peace process, particularly in light of the fact that there are more than 5,000 Palestinians who are still in prison.” According to this school, the “bucket” is not proverbially half-full but rather 99% empty, with the balance of the detritus remaining in Israeli prisons.
And finally there is the “A Bribe? You Offend Me” argument, as they accept the “bribe” of the prisoners and plan celebrations in their honor. Palestinians will continue to criticize Abbas for “succumbing” to U.S. pressure and going to the peace talks against the recommendation of the PLO leadership. Some Palestinians, including Abbas loyalists, see the release of a few dozen prisoners as a “bribe” offered by Secretary of State John Kerry to the Palestinian Authority president to entice him to return to the talks. These Palestinians point out that in return for this “bribe,” Abbas was forced to drop two other preconditions for resuming the peace talks: a full cessation of settlement construction and Israeli acceptance of the pre-1967 lines as the basis for a two-state solution.
The only point of unanimity among the schools of thought will be to attack Israel in the media for not fulfilling all their demands, including the a settlement freeze, the pre-1967 lines, and release of the rest of the prisoners.
The Palestinians are not the only side of the table expressing doubts about the outcome of negotiations. Numerous prominent members of the ruling coalition are skeptical about the prospect of a fully viable peace accord being born in nine months. One source said, “We know that the PA accepts any Israeli offer as a fait accompli, even if they themselves reject those offers. It’s a fact that the PA has demanded the concessions made by Israel in previous negotiations as a starting point for new ones, even if they themselves rejected those concessions.” If this is the case, as history supports, then it actually discourages the Palestinians from achieving a concluded peace agreement, permitting them instead to make incremental gains while sacrificing nothing during negotiations.
Knesset Speaker MK Yuli Edelstein of the ruling Likud Party said that that attempting to reach a comprehensive “peace deal” with the Palestinian Authority could wind up causing more violence rather than reducing it. “If the idea is to reach a permanent accord in nine months,” he said in an interview, “then I still haven’t found anyone with a convincing answer, who can tell me if [PA chairman Mahmoud Abbas] represents Judea and Samaria, or Gaza as well. I have yet to hear anyone give a commitment that he is also speaking for Gaza. There is a different government there. So the chances are very slim.”
Edelstein recommended narrowing the scope of the talks. “If the negotiations concentrate on cooperation in different areas like the economy, water, environment, etc., I think we can gain from the talks. If we are dragged into gestures like releasing prisoners and perhaps other things, all the Palestinians will be interested in will be to take as much as they can and leave. If we discuss cooperation agreements out of an understanding that the time is not ripe for agreements, we will be better off.”
Edelstein added, “It seems that with the fervor of some elements in Washington and the international community to achieve an instant peace, it is hard to convince them that this road leads nowhere.” Edelstein noted that failing in an attempt to resolve all of the problems, as was attemptedin previous rounds of negotiation, would result in a wave of violence, and intensify international activity to boycott Israel on the perceived truism that Israel is the party at fault. He does not have a crystal ball, just a good grasp of history.
The head of Yisrael Beiteinu, ex-Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, recently said that there is no chance that “peace talks” between Israel and the Palestinian Authority will lead to a peace deal. “Nine months from now, even the respectable people leading the process will understand that it is impossible to reach a comprehensive diplomatic agreement,” Lieberman stated. “We need to make do with what we have — security and economic cooperation, and building a common path.”
Results of the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI) and Tel Aviv University monthly Peace Index poll were released on the 6th of August, and it seems the Israeli public agrees with the assessments of ministers Edelstein and Lieberman. The poll found that 79% of Israeli Jews think the new round of negotiations has a low chance of success in yielding a peace agreement, while 18% believe it has a high chance of succeeding. The perception amongst 63% of Israeli Jews is that the Israeli government is truly interested in returning to the negotiating table while just 29% believe the Palestinian Authority wants the negotiations. The Palestinians are considerably more optimistic, with 41% thinking there is a low chance of success while 47% believe there is a high chance. Among Arabs, surprisingly, 58% feel that the Israelis are sincere about the talks while a whopping 85% believe the Palestinian Authority is genuinely committed to the negotiations.
And finally, from a most unlikely source, the pundit I believe with the most accurate and succinct assessment of the peace talks, Ghassan Khattib, former minister in the Palestinian Authority, believes that the negotiations will in practice continue for some time, albeit without a peace deal. “Endless negotiation is good for the Americans. They can point to success in bringing the sides to the table and keeping them there. Netanyahu can avoid U.S. pressure and it shows he’s engaged in the peace process. Abbas can continue to be fed with money, prisoner releases and other things and maintain the survival of the PA.’’ It seems Mr. Khattib, like Mr. Edelstein, is not reading from a crystal ball, just from a page in history.
Meir Solomon is a writer, analyst and commentator living in Alon Shvut, Israel, with his wife and two children. He can be contacted at msolomon@Hamodia.com