At Open Zion, we've published two accounts of the deal to jumpstart Israeli-Palestinian talks with a concession from Israel, namely that Benjamin Netanyahu decided to release about 100 Palestinian prisoners in a nod to his interlocutors' demands. Both Brent Sasley and Elisheva Goldberg noted that releasing the prisoners seemed to be from Netanyahu's perspective an alternative to freezing settlements. That was a notion butressed by the rationale for the prisoner release given by Netanyahu loyalist and Likud interior minister Gideon Sa'ar:
Had we conceded on the settlements, we would have received more points in the international arena, and our refusal to release the prisoners would have been accepted. But that would have been a very dangerous concession. It would have been our seal of approval for delegitimizing the settlement enterprise.
In these pages, Sasley and Goldberg put it slightly differently: not that this had to do with delegitimization—a word increasingly devoid of any meaning with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—but rather with holding his right-wing coalition together. Both writers noted that the case against prisoner releases was a compelling one: that seeing the objections of victims' families tugs at the heartstrings and, as Sasley's literature review showed, that freed terrorists may well return to terrorist violence.
If you accept that—released Palestinian prisoners posing at least a modicum of a security risk to Israeli citizens—then the inescapable conclusion would be that Netanyahu put politics over security.
It's important to note again that Sa'ar was wrong: that settlements have been frozen before, and yet the settlement enterprise has not been delegitimized, in the sense, at least, that Israel has continued building with impunity and the U.S. has continued to provide her with diplomatic cover in international fora to do so. Then we must ask: if there isn't delegitimization, what is the potential security costs of freezing settlements? The answer is: nothing.
Jeffrey Goldberg, with whom I frequently disagree, nailed the dynamic with his latest column's headline: "Israel Frees Murderers to Keep Building Settlements." Goldberg noted, "The real tragedy here is that the prisoner release is unnecessary"—a simple settlement freeze could've done the trick. Netanyahu's coalition members have "become idol worshippers, and their idol is land." That's what was most disturbing here: that Netanyahu, in a country where we often hear that security is a paramount concern, has bent over backwards—even sacrificing security—to appease ideologues. Even after being appeased, the most notable member of the movement—Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennet—even showed up at the anti-prisoner release protests. That is, his position is: no concessions whatsoever.
We've heard again and again that the Labor Party stands at the ready to take Jewish Home's place in the coalition, which makes one wonder: why not revamp the coalition already? How long can Netanyahu keep Bennet around for, and at what cost—in terms of security and otherwise—to Israelis?