(/sites/default/files/uploads/2013/07/ce40f_w-abbas-netanyahu-cp-930906.jpg)American-sponsored Israeli-Palestinian peace talks—or perhaps, talks supposedly leading up to peace talks—are on for today in Washington. A last-minute hitch was cleared up.
Last week Israel’s international relations minister Yuval Steinitz had announced that Israel had agreed to a Palestinian demand and would, in the course of the talks, be freeing 84 Palestinian security prisoners from the pre-1993 period, some of them, as he put it, “heavyweights.”
The heavyweights include, for instance, Mahmoud Salam Saliman Abu Harabish and Adam Ibrahim Juma’a-Juma’a, who in 1988 hurled a firebomb at an Israeli civilian bus in the Jordan Valley. Twenty-six-year-old Rachel Weiss, her three children aged three, two, and nine months, and a young soldier who tried to rescue them all burned to death.
For many people, the fact that Abu Harabish, Juma’a-Juma’a, and many others like them will—if the talks progress—be released, in compliance with the Palestinian demand, is perfectly compatible with high hopes for peace and an end to what they call the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Things seemed to be running smoothly, then—except that over the weekend the Palestinian side upped their demand from 84 prisoners to 104. And they made it a flat, brazenly extortionate ultimatum: 104 prisoners, not 84, or we’re not showing up on Monday.
The United States and Israel caved.
To say that the Obama administration caved is probably a misnomer, since there is no indication that President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry find the release of the Palestinian prisoners in the least bit troubling. Indeed, Kerry first began heavily pressuring Israel to release them immediately after the Boston Marathon terror attack.
For Israel the pill was a bit harder to swallow.
A poll had already found 84% of Jewish Israelis opposing the release of terrorists as a condition for restarting talks with the Palestinians. Seventy-eight percent opposed releasing them even if the talks resumed and releases were required to keep them going, and 73% said that, in any case, the talks would not lead to an agreement that would resolve the conflict.
These numbers contrast sharply with the large majority of Israelis who supported the release of a thousand Palestinian security prisoners, including heinous terrorists, for captive soldier Gilad Shalit in October 2011. In that case, Israelis felt they were getting something precious—the life and freedom of the soldier—in return. In the present case, a large majority feel they’ll be getting nothing in return except sham talks.
Aware of this problem, over the weekend Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wrote an open letter to the Israeli public that seeks to explain and justify the prisoner release.
It’s an interesting document, tantalizingly open to interpretation. In its key passage Netanyahu states:
At the present time, I believe it is of the utmost importance for the State of Israel to enter a diplomatic process. This is important both to exhaust the possibilities of ending the conflict with the Palestinians and to establish Israel’s position in the complex international reality around us.
The major changes in our region—in Egypt, Syria and in Iran—not only pose challenges for the State of Israel but they also present significant opportunities for us.
Here Netanyahu seems to imply that Israel will be in a stronger position, with greater sympathy and diplomatic backing, to attack Iran’s nuclear program if it is perceived to be behaving well by holding talks with the Palestinians. The other possibility is that the words were crafted as a sop to hawkish Israelis who tend to bitterly oppose the prisoner release.
In any case, there has been no indication that the letter mollified the Israeli public’s opposition to the move. On Sunday relatives of victims of the prisoners slated to be released held an anguished demonstration outside of the government complex in Jerusalem. On Sunday afternoon the Israeli cabinet voted 13-7 to approve the prisoner release, while also approving a bill to submit any peace agreement to a national referendum.
Peace is not at hand. The demand to free a hundred murderers as a precondition for talking peace is a barbarian demand. It was made by Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority, a tiny, corrupt, economically tottering, hate-ridden dictatorship. It was submitted to by the United States and Israel, still the two leading lights of civilization in our time. It is not a pretty sight.
By the most favorable possible interpretation, for Israel the whole charade—including the prospective prisoner releases—is a necessary sacrifice toward larger purposes. But that, too—with so many hints and threats already having been issued regarding Iran—needs to be seen to be believed.
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