Text size

Click here for more articles by Akiva Eldar

"I came here today to extend a hand in peace to the Palestinian people and to our neighboring Arab states," the prime minister declared at the start of his speech at Annapolis on November 27. "I have no doubt that the reality created in our region in 1967 will change significantly," Ehud Olmert promised. He knows that "it will be as hard as Hell for some of those among us," but assured his listeners that "we are ready for it."

These lofty words were translated this week into a petty argument over the issue of the price of Gilad Shalit's release. Instead of discussing the place of the prisoners in the peace process that is being renewed (really?), policy makers instead busied themselves with the blood on the hands of those in jail and the exchange rate for the deal.

"Blood on their hands" is merely a metaphor which politicians have turned into a sacred command. Israeli law does not recognize the classification of criminal law-breakers and security law-breakers according to that criterion.

Usually the terms were loosened when there was bargaining with terror organizations, who demanded and received prisoners "with blood on their hands" in return for the Israelis they were holding. They learned that the quickest way to get prisoners out of Israeli prisons is to hold Israeli captives.

The governments of Israel are the ones who forbade releasing terrorists, with or without "blood on their hands," and they are the ones who have the authority to release them. What is the significance of a "historic process of peace and reconciliation" if not to courageously pardon those who have committed crimes, no matter how grave, in the struggle to free their people from a foreign ruler?

Those who are considered low-life terrorists in the eyes of one side, receive from the other side the glory reserved for war heroes.

The formal legal difference between a security (or political) prisoner and a prisoner of war does not interest tens of thousands of Palestinian mothers, fathers and children whose loved ones are in Israeli jails.

It is easy to imagine what the prisoners relatives think when they see their leaders embracing the wardens-in-chief of their sons.

Would Olmert go near Mahmoud Abbas if the security forces who are subordinate to the Palestinian Authority chairman were holding the settlers who this week critically wounded Palestinian farmers?

What a fuss there would be here if the government were to open negotiations with the Palestinians at a time when a popular Israeli leader and fighter, someone like Marwan Barghouti, was in jail.

Ten years ago, the governments of Britain and Ireland freed a large group of Republican prisoners and allowed them to participate in the meeting of Sinn Fein institutions to persuade them to support the Good Friday agreement.

The agreement stated that all the prisoners who belonged to organizations that signed the accord would be freed within two years. That included those ''with blood on their hands.''

The staged release began even before the fighters had been disarmed and was not stopped even when there were terrorist attacks.

The law was altered for this purpose and the definition of the prisoners was changed from terrorists to political detainees.

The Irish experience shows us that had the prisoners not been released, it would not have been possible to have a peace agreement. But Olmert does not have to go as far as Northern Ireland in order to understand that reconciliation starts with the release of the prisoners of the partner to reconciliation.

In May 2006, it was the Fatah prisoners, headed by Barghouti, who drew up the first agreement between the Palestinian camps (the National Conciliation Document) which accepted the two-state solution and the cessation of terror within the Green Line.

At Annapolis, Olmert made do with a general declaration about "historic reconciliation."

When he spoke about changing the reality that was created in our region in 1967, he refrained from describing the new reality he was promising the Arabs.

Indeed, it is difficult to stand before the public and the families of terror victims and convince them that freeing the murderers of their children can stop murderous acts aimed at other children.

If Olmert is afraid to deal with this difficulty, how will he be able to deal with difficulties that are much greater - to evacuate tens of thousands of settlers, to divide Jerusalem and to find a decent solution to the problem of the refugees?