“In a normal country, when a bus blows up on Sunday and a police officer is stabbed on Monday, you don’t release terrorists as a ‘gesture’ the week after” lamented Israeli MK Danny Danon of the Likud party on Monday. That’s right Mr. Danon. A normal country would indeed not have to release terrorists. A normal country would not have terrorists incarcerated in its jails to begin with. A normal country would also not have mandatory conscription of its youngest and finest, a landscape dotted with battle scars and monuments, and an ever growing community of bereaved families. So whoever said, Mr. Danon, that Israel is a normal country?
Populist attempts to define normalcy aside, the release this week of yet another group of Palestinian prisoners is an extremely bitter pill to swallow. Reasons abound for this: the latest string of terrorist attacks; the skepticism on both sides on the chances for success; the belief that the E.U. will be critical of Israeli policy whatever it does; the pain and indignation of the bereaved families; the lack of a parallel ‘gesture’ from the Palestinian side; the fact that many of those released will go back to planning and executing attacks against Israel…do I really need to continue?
Yet still, Israel has no choice but to go forward, and nothing, not even Netanyahu’s severe cold, will stop the release in 48 hours of Palestinian prisoners. In return for Abu Mazen’s willingness to sit down at the table to talk, the cancellation (or postponement) of Palestinians attempts to seek international recognition via the U.N., and a cessation of the legal proceedings against Israeli officials in an assortment of other international organizations, Netanyahu agreed to release all the Palestinians arrested prior to the Oslo Accords in 1993 – including those “with blood on their hands”.
Sure, commitments can be broken – God knows countries have reneged on their promises countless times before – but it is entirely questionable whether doing so at this time would benefit Israel. The relationship with the U.S. has seen better days, and Europe is becoming increasingly active in its criticism of Israel’s policies to the extent of threatening to boycott merchandise manufactured in the West Bank. Since cancelling this third ‘gesture’ would no doubt mean blowing up the talks, Israel’s international position would be greatly compromised.
This is precisely why insisting on coupling each release of prisoners with an announcement of further construction in the West Bank defies all logic.
Netanyahu does not really believe that the talks with the Palestinians will culminate in anything tangible, but to placate the international community, he was willing to agree to mutual gestures to kick start the talks. What he was not willing to sacrifice on the altar of peace, was his political survival. So instead of freezing construction – a gesture that would have undoubtedly satisfied the Palestinians but also greatly aggravated the rightist elements in Netanyahu’s party and constituency – he preferred a multi-phased release of prisoners. Since the release of terrorists is highly controversial and extracts a steep political price, Netanyahu felt the need to bolster his position by accompanying each release of prisoners with an announcement about new construction plans in the West Bank.
Wait, did I miss something? You’ve already paid a heavy price to placate the international community by agreeing to release prisoners, you are now going to risk it all because of political considerations? Not only is it highly doubtful that these announcements will indeed help Netanyahu calm those opposing the prisoners release, it also helps aggravate the already tenuous situation in the West Bank, deepens the mistrust on both sides, and runs the risk of blowing up the talks – a result that will spoil whatever little Netanyahu achieved by agreeing to enter the talks in the first place. I can just imagine the chagrin of the bereaved families whose loved ones were killed by the prisoners already released should it all come to nothing because of Netanyahu’s political stunt.
Netanyahu’s constant juggling is a direct result of the Israeli political system and the inherent need to cater to the needs of all coalition parties. But it also reflects Netahyahu’s indecisiveness. If you want to build in the West Bank, do so, but not as a transparent, cheap, cynical and entirely useless gimmick with the potential of doing more harm than good. 2014 is going to be a year of crucial decisions for the future of the Middle East, let us hope the region’s leaders are skilled enough to make them.