Releasing Palestinian Prisoners Is Netanyahu's Double Defense

Cabinet protest is of little concern to the prime minister; he knows that freeing prisoners will prevent the talks from collapsing and postpone an intifada.

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The release of the second group of Palestinian security prisoners – or, the entire arrangement to release 104 such prisoners in four stages – is the pin that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is holding to ensure the grenade, or a new confrontation with the Palestinian Authority, does not explode. Israel is concerned about two possibilities: A significant escalation of violence in the West Bank and, even more so, the collapse of peace talks with the Palestinians.

If negotiations are suspended before the nine-month time frame set by the Americans, the PA will resume its diplomatic offensive against Israel and try to join dozens of international organizations, after their bid to seek full statehood at the United Nations failed in the summer and fall of 2011. A former senior Palestinian official who recently attended an informal meeting with Israel Defense Forces officers in the West Bank, told them explicitly that the PA does not want another intifada (popular uprising) with its violence and casualties. The Palestinians' trump card is the diplomatic struggle, and it will play that card if the talks end. The United States and European Union have been pressuring the Palestinians to avoid this route, but if the talks collapse it will be difficult for them to continue doing so, putting Israel in an uncomfortable position in the international arena.

But as long as PA President Mahmoud Abbas keeps getting prisoners released every couple of months, chances of the talks collapsing are small. Netanyahu also gains time this way - time to build more homes in the territories with no significant resistance from the Palestinians.

The ministers from Habayit Hayehudi and Yisrael Beiteinu, who on Sunday tried to use a cynical move in the Ministerial Committee for Legislation to block the release, are well aware of this reality. These ministers might have had some options last summer, when they concluded that continued settlement building was more important than preventing the release of Palestinian murderers. Yet it’s a little too late for regrets. Netanyahu cannot violate his commitments to the PA and particularly to the Americans - which Likud Ministers Gideon Sa’ar and Limor Livnat clearly understood, based on their statements at the ministerial meeting Sunday. Therefore, as long as there’s no dramatic terrorist attack to derail the plan, the prisoners will be released on time - despite protests in the cabinet and among the public.

To ensure that the peace talks continue (even if only scant progress has been made so far) and to prevent a further escalation in the violence, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has organized another aid package for the Palestinians. Abbas will get an additional $600 million from the donor countries, sponsored by the Americans. About a quarter of that amount will come from Qatar, which in recent years preferred to donate most of its contributions to the rival Hamas government in the Gaza Strip.

Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh’s call for a new intifada during a speech earlier this month was aimed at the West Bank, not at Gaza - where Hamas, under heavy Egyptian pressure, is making every effort to avoid a clash with the IDF. One can assume that even Monday morning, Haniyeh’s men were furiously searching for those who fired two rockets at Ashkelon, a rare event in recent months.

The media is giving extensive coverage to the protests of bereaved Israeli families, and rightly so; the government is about to release the murderers of their loved ones. But the strongest arguments from those who object to the prisoner release are emotional and moral ones. Other claims, including that the freed prisoners are liable to resume their terror activities, carry no real weight. Most of the prisoners to be released have been serving long sentences for attacks carried out in the 1980s and early 1990s, before the Oslo Accords. The vast majority are affiliated with Fatah. In terms of terrorism, these are old men, aged 45 to 60, who have no relevance to the current terror scene and have no knowledge that would be useful to members of today’s terror networks.

One can, of course, cite the harmful symbolism of Israel making such concessions, but this argument seems to have been spent in the Shalit deal two years ago. After the same Netanyahu released 1,027 prisoners, including Hamas murderers and terrorist leaders active in the second intifada, do the 104 prisoners being released now have any cumulative additional significance?

Another argument always made is that such releases weaken Israeli deterrence. But, at least for now, Israel’s position is relatively strong. As noted, Hamas is up to its ears with Egypt. Diplomatic and security coordination with Egypt and Jordan are stronger than they have been for many years. Hezbollah, it seems, is too absorbed in the Syrian civil war to initiate any action against Israel right now. The Syrian army has been worn down by its murderous war against the rebel groups. And the thousands of global jihad operatives on the Syria border and in Sinai never need a reason to launch attacks against Israel. Once they finish their war against the armies of Syria and Egypt, they’ll be gunning for us in any case; releasing Palestinian prisoners will not make any difference to them.

Netanyahu, therefore, is in a relatively good position to go forward with the second stage of the prisoner release; the opposition from Habayit Hayehudi and Yisrael Beiteinu isn’t likely to stymie him.

Palestinian women hold pictures of relatives as they participate in a demonstration calling for release of Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails.Credit: AP

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