As the New York Times reports today, Naftali Bennett, the head of the right-wing Habayit Hayehudi Party, is getting blasted in the Israeli media as a hypocrite for opposing the Israeli government’s decision to honor its promise to release more Palestinian terrorist murderers. Bennett happens to be a member of that government and his critics may have a point when they say that if he is as outraged about the release as he purports to be, he can always resign his Cabinet post. It is in that context that the Times and other outlets prefer to view the protests about the freeing of these killers as mere exploitation of the anguish of the families of their victims rather than an expression of genuine outrage, as it probably deserved to be understood.
Whether his detractors like it or not, Bennett can afford to have his cake and eat it too. Netanyahu can’t afford to fire him and probably wouldn’t want to even if he could, since doing so would not make his government any more manageable since that would strengthen Justice Minister Tzipi Livni more than he might like and tilt it farther to the left than he might like. But the hoopla over Bennett’s admittedly futile efforts to derail the release illustrates something a lot more important than the way members of the Israeli Cabinet love to grandstand. Even those who dislike Bennett’s politics and agree with Netanyahu’s decision need to acknowledge that this painful move is far more indicative of the high price of the Obama administration’s good will than the alleged hypocrisy of right-wing politicians. Having forced Netanyahu into a corner by demanding the prisoner release in order to get the Palestinian Authority back to the negotiating table, Washington’s blindness to the consequences of this act is the real issue at stake in this debate.
The comments from those who are defending what Netanyahu admitted had been one of the toughest decisions he has ever made illustrated the dilemma. Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, who is often viewed as a hardliner on territorial issues, said the release had to continue because it had to be seen as part of a “long term strategic view” of his country’s position. That might be interpreted as a defense of the peace process. But it is more probably a reference to the fact that Israel’s geostrategic position is largely dependent on its ability to rely on its alliance with the United States.
The one possible benefit to Israel of the release is that it probably strengthens the position of PA leader Mahmoud Abbas vis-à-vis his Hamas rivals. Like the ransom Hamas extracted from Israel in order to gain the freedom of kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit that boosted the Islamist group, it is supposed that this gesture will be seen as a triumph for Abbas and his Fatah Party. But since it is highly unlikely that Abbas would use this advantage to justify genuine progress toward peace, the utility of such tactical moves is limited.
More important for Israel is the fact that releasing the prisoners is really aimed at pacifying President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry. There was little reason to believe reviving peace talks with the Palestinians made any sense when Washington put the screws to Netanyahu to reward Abbas for returning to the talks he abandoned five years ago. And the Palestinians’ continued intransigence and refusal to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn makes that even clearer three months into the stalled negotiations.
But Netanyahu has little choice but to give the Americans want they want. That is not because he is weak, but because only by letting the talks proceed without Israeli objections or hindrances will he have the ability to say no to demands for more concessions once it is obvious that they have failed. His first obligation is to protect his nation’s security, and he can best do that by standing strong on territory and borders, as well as the Iranian nuclear issue even if that means he must do the unthinkable and let murderers walk free.
The onus for this outrage ought to be on President Obama and Secretary Kerry, who have created this moral dilemma. It is they who should be explaining why they think it is all right to ask Jerusalem to do something that no American leader would dream of doing if the freedom of 9/11 murderers and accomplices were in question, as it is for those who perpetrated similar crimes against Israelis. Doing so encourages terrorism and rewards those who promote violence rather than encouraging peace.
As much as some Israelis like to talk about their independence from American influence, the strategic equation still requires their leaders to stay as close as possible to the president of the United States. That doesn’t mean Netanyahu can’t stand up to Obama if the circumstances require it, but he must pick his fights carefully. That killers with blood on their hands be released and then feted by the Palestinians as heroes is a blot on Netanyahu’s record. But it should remind us that the real problem is the high price Obama has demanded for the maintenance of the U.S. alliance.