Israel agreed last July to release 104 prisoners as a concession to Palestinians in the framework of revived peace talks; it was in turn agreed, as a concession to Israel, that this number would be broken up into four groups of 26, contingent on that most elusive of benchmarks, “progress in the talks.”
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The final tranche of prisoners is meant to go home by the end of this month – yet, given the lack of progress in the talks, and the loud protestations from inside Netanyahu’s government, it’s possible that the final 26 won’t go anywhere anytime soon.
The Israeli discourse is, of course, a swirl of speculation: Who is to be included in the final group? Will it – could it possibly – include Israeli Arabs? Will any group, of any prisoners, actually be released? And if they are, will it threaten Netanyahu’s government? And if they’re not, will it ignite a third intifada? Or maybe send Abu Mazen back to the United Nations?
The uncertainty, the guessing, the nasty comments and threats – the general sense that nothing can ever just go from point A to point B – all are woefully, painfully familiar. Remember Yitzhak Shamir’s machinations around which Palestinians could come to the Madrid Conference? How about Yasser Arafat’s on-stage fit over the Oslo II maps in 1994? In 2000, President Clinton promised Arafat he wouldn’t blame him if the Camp David talks failed – and then he blamed Arafat. The 2003 Road Map was a pretty big deal, but everyone had reservations and adjustments and we all know it didn’t come to much (particularly where settlements – which were supposed to freeze immediately – were concerned). Remember 2005, when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice personally oversaw the negotiation of a transport agreement between Israel and Gaza, and then Israel ignored it? Oh, I could go on.
Everything’s a crisis. Everything’s a battle royale. Everything’s a big, boiling pottage of names, numbers, and facts that only a few remember (like that 2005 transport deal). Lines are drawn (red, or in the sand), insults are flung, tripwires lie all around. And every single last one of these brouhahas, individually and collectively, serves as a terrible, horrible metaphor for the entire conflict – and the fact that after all that effort, we are still mired in conflict.
I don’t mean to suggest that the issues of who is released, and when, and the possible consequences of their release/nonrelease are unimportant. These are very important issues, and the heart of each actually is the heart of the conflict. All of it hinges on whose story matters to you, and how it matters. Is there room for multiple truths, multiple narratives? At what point are my needs more important than yours, at what point do my fear and pain erase yours? How should we guide our decisions – with the despair of the past, or hope for the future? Is there a perfect (read: safe – or, read: just) balance between the two?
And hovering over it all is the massive power imbalance between the sides. Israel gets to decide who gets released; Israel gets to decide if enough progress has been made in the talks; Israel gets to make the American Secretary of State dance to its tune, even while crying foul. Israel is the side with the tanks, the side that continues to build on somebody else’s land.
Bottom line, the questions about the last tranche of 26 prisoners aren’t actually about those people, or the role each may have played in perpetuating the conflict. The question is – or should be, at any rate – the conflict itself.
Are we going to allow this conflict to endlessly fester and occasionally explode, a Mobius strip of sorrow that turns and returns back upon itself eternally? Or are we going to end it?
I know it’s not that simple. I’ve been watching this conflict for so long that I do, actually, remember the arguments over which Palestinians could go to Madrid. So I know it’s not that simple.
But in making every single step a make-or-break moment – a make-or-break moment in which we face an implacable, nearly animalistic foe whom we can never trust – we consign ourselves to the Mobius strip. We are choosing to not end the conflict.
It’s pretty clear to me that a majority of the current government is fine with that. That, indeed, they think that’s how Israel wins.
But they’re wrong. And no matter who does (or does not) get sent home from prison in the coming days, everybody else will pay the price.
Emily L. Hauser is an American-Israeli writer currently living in Chicago. She has studied and reported on the contemporary Middle East since the early 1990s for a variety of outlets, including The Chicago Tribune and The Daily Beast. She can be followed on Twitter: @emilylhauser