The controversy over the release of Palestinian prisoners prior to Sunday’s cabinet vote on the issue was essentially emotional and political. If we stretch it a bit, it might have significant policy implications. But there was no real security argument here. A significant number of these prisoners are aged over 50, and it’s hard to imagine these Fatah oldsters resuming terror activity. What’s more, these are not people who specialized in firing rockets or building explosive devices for suicide attacks; in the pre-Oslo Accords days - when they were all arrested - Fatah didn’t yet carry out those kinds of attacks.
Sunday’s debate, which crossed party lines, centered around two other questions. The first was whether a government that is basically right-wing – and the presence of Yesh Atid and Hatnuah in the coalition does not affect this definition – is able to release murderers even when the fate of a captured Israeli soldier is not on the line, but only a renewal of diplomatic talks (instances in which Netanyahu governments released car thieves and stone throwers are not appropriate comparisons).
The second question is whether the same right-wing government could move forward, even slightly, on the diplomatic track with the Palestinians without disintegrating under the ideological burden associated with having serious conversations about returning parts of the West Bank.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu won this argument because he approached it from a position of political strength. Public opinion polls show consistent support for negotiations, certainly if they’ll be managed by someone who is not suspected of excessive submissiveness toward the Palestinians. Netanyahu also got backing from the security establishment, not just from Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon but also in part from the Shin Bet security service and the Israel Defense Forces, which enabled him to convince the majority of ministers that the security risks from the prisoner release were negligible.
In the background, there were also political considerations: The need to avoid having the United States blame Israel for sabotaging the talks; the fear of a violent outburst in the West Bank without the resumption of negotiations; and perhaps even the hope that the goodwill gesture toward the Palestinians would facilitate coordination with the Obama administration on the Iranian nuclear issue.
The prime minister had already crossed the Rubicon, with regard to the release of murderers, with the exchange for Gilad Shalit in October 2011, when he released hundreds of them, many of whom are still significant risks. Forty-four of those released into the West Bank have already been arrested on suspicion of resuming terror activities (mostly relatively minor) or for violating the conditions of their release. More importantly, many of the most violent Hamas prisoners who had been deported to Gaza or abroad, at Israel’s insistence, are involved in efforts to remotely activate the organization’s terror networks in the West Bank.
It was interesting to hear Netanyahu use the same justifications on Sunday that former prime ministers Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert used when he choose to enter negotiations that might lead to painful concessions for him - of the type he had vehemently resisted in the past. Once again, he boasted about his moderate approach to security; citing his restraint during Operation Pillar of Defense in the Gaza Strip last November, when he did not heed the calls to expand the operation by sending in ground troops to reoccupy the Strip.
To reduce resistance on the right, Netanyahu wants to free the 104 Palestinian prisoners in four stages, over nine months of talks. This just puts off the inevitable, and it could actually do him political damage: rather than getting past the sight of smiling prisoners flashing victory signs and flying Palestinian flags in one fell swoop, he will have to repeat that unpleasant experience four times.
It’s hard to believe that Israel will succeeded in forcing the Palestinian Authority to continue negotiating throughout that period if no progress is made, just because more prisoners are meant to be released. As far as the Palestinians are concerned, that achievement is already guaranteed.
The debate over the release of the Israeli Arab prisoners listed, meanwhile, also raised fundamental questions of sovereignty, not to mention a practical problem. Their release may lead the way to legal petitions demanding the release of Israelis who murdered on political grounds, first and foremost Ami Popper.