We have come a long way from the days when Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu used to call for negotiations without preconditions. Now it has simply become expected that Israel must demonstrate “good will” by purchasing the presence of the Palestinians at the negotiating table with round after round of painful concessions. And few things must be more painful for Israelis than having to see those who murdered their loved ones walk free. It flies in the face of the most basic notions about justice and, of course, it’s tactically suicidal: those well-schooled in terror go free to resume their activities; those contemplating the path of terrorism know that in the event they are captured they will likely be released in a prisoner exchange eventually. Yet, the Israeli government has set a dangerous precedent and throwing on the breaks now may prove easier said than done.
The Palestinians have recently issued a new demand. Either Israel lets 1,000 Palestinian prisoners walk free or Palestinian negotiators will walk from the current round of peace talks. The previous nine months of fruitless negotiations were paid for by the Israelis agreeing to release 104 Palestinian security prisoners. These were to be released in stages so as to ensure that the Palestinians wouldn’t simply take the prisoners and run. At each stage the Palestinians would be obliged to continue with the negotiations and the next batch of terrorists would be released. But the deadline for the final installment of convicted criminals came and went this weekend. With Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas refusing to carry on with the talks, Israel announced that this last prisoner release would not be made.
This was hardly an unfair decision. With the Palestinians insisting the talks were over and that they were going back to the United Nations to pursue statehood there, the Israelis had nothing to gain from setting more terrorists loose. Yet, not releasing the prisoners was only ever going to invite more condemnation, despite the fact that threatening not to do so is arguably Israel’s way of attempting to keep talks open.
Indeed, it has been reported that the State Department was not at all pleased about the prospect of Israel backing out on the prisoner release. By all accounts U.S. officials have warned Israel that if the Palestinians leave talks then America will not be able to stop them from going to the UN. In reality there is much that the U.S. could do to keep Abbas from leaving the talks in the first place, if only it chose to. The Palestinian Authority is in a dire financial mess; the threat of withholding the large amounts of U.S. funding the PA relies on to function would be one way of tying the Palestinians to the peace table.
Yet remarkably, it seems that the Israeli government has actually come forward with still more concessions of its own. This time the Israelis are offering 400 Palestinian terrorists in return for six more months of negotiations. That’s quite an inflation from the 104 terrorists agreed upon for nine months of talks. No doubt sensing that he is gaining the upper hand in all of this, Abbas has now done what tyrants always do when they sense they’re being appeased: he has demanded more. This time, says Abbas, Israel will have to release 1,000 prisoners to renew Palestinian participation in peace talks.
That last demand should be a signal to America and the world that the Palestinians are not remotely serious about the negotiation process. Not that any such signal should be needed by now. Perhaps the international community would be forced to note this if the Israelis weren’t sending out their own signal, one that only serves to undermine their ability to hold out against such unreasonableness on the part of the Palestinians. By upping the offer to 400, Israel is indicating that it is perfectly reasonable that large numbers of murderers should be released in return for halfhearted Palestinian participation in talks. All that has to be haggled over now is how many.
But this is a disastrous message to send to the world. It gives the impression that a negotiated peace is not in the Palestinians’ interest–that they would indeed be better off taking unilateral moves, and that all these talks are primarily for Israel’s benefit. That last point is the line that Obama pushes too.
Oh, but there is just one other small thing that Abbas is asking for along with that minor matter of the 1,000 terrorists going free. Abbas is now saying that Israel must agree to transfer parts of Israeli controlled Area C of the West Bank into PA control. But this demand may give a clue about where Abbas is weak and what he most fears from Israel. He has been threatening that the Palestinians will go back to the UN to continue pushing for unilateral recognition there. Israeli Economy Minister Naftali Bennett has suggested that Israel should simply let Abbas go. But Bennett and his party, along with much of the Likud, have also been calling for the annexation of Area C to Israel. It is possible that Abbas is demanding a reduction in the size of Area C precisely because he fears an Israeli annexation. That should tell Israel something about where it has some leverage.