Open Zion

08.06.13

Why Did Netanyahu Release Palestinian Prisoners?

Israel’s Right and Left are finally unified. Nearly a week after Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu forced his cabinet to approve the release of 104 convicted Palestinian terrorists, public outrage continues to reverberate across the political spectrum. Newspaper editorials continue to excoriate Netanyahu, even calling for his resignation—editorials written by his supporters. Bitter feelings will only intensify next week, as the first terrorists are welcomed as heroes upon their post-Ramadan release.

No ordinary unpopular decision, the prisoner release touches raw nerves throughout this small country. Everybody knows someone with a family member killed or maimed in a terror attack. Yet, Netanyahu is hardly one to wake up one morning and decide to release convicted terrorists. Nor is the stubborn, shrewd prime minsiter known to capitulate easily, or to misread public sentiment.

So, what might be behind his profoundly unpopular decision to meet PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s incongruous demand that Israel release blood-stained terror convicts as a precondition to talk about peace talks? Especially when those talks are not expected to lead anywhere?

Netanyahu asked the public to support the prisoner release, opaquely explaining that it was “for the good of the country.” What could that mean? Only Netanyahu knows for sure, but here are three possibilities:

1. Everything Netanyahu does is best scrutinized through an Iranian lens. Netanyahu maintains focus on the existential threat posed by a menacing, near-nuclear Iran. The Obama administration, meanwhile, remains preoccupied only with the Palestinian issue, to the exclusion of crises violently swirling elsewhere around the region. Quite possibly, President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry so covet these peace talks that they demanded Netanyahu pay this price in exchange for American commitments of cooperation in an attack to de-fang Iran.

The seeming arbitrariness of the nine-month timetable announced for negotiations not-so-coincidentally corresponds to the likely remaining window for such an attack: a disturbing new report from the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security concludes that by mid-2014, Iran will achieve the “critical capability” to build a nuclear bomb undetected. 

2. Netanyahu’s cryptic explanation may involve more intricate calculations. Israel has taken a diplomatic beating lately, including the E.U. decision to ban financing and cooperation with Israeli institutions in all territory captured in 1967 (including Jerusalem’s Old City). Netanyahu may feel compelled to take some heat off Israel by entering talks even at this painful price, while being confident that the Palestinian leadership will reject any reasonable Israeli offer. If Netanyahu can widen the perception that the absence of peace is due to unreasonable Palestinian demands and intransigence, that may ease the building diplomatic pressure on Israel.

That’s not a bad bet. First, Abbas set an acrimonious tone by this week by restating that no Jewish Israeli —soldier or civilian—could live in his future Palestinian state. Love is not in the air.

Furthermore, no one knows just who Abbas represents, or what he can deliver. He is still PA “President” 5 years after his term’s expiration date; he does not control Gaza, which holds about 40 percent of the PA population; and his Fatah organization would likely lose a popular election to Hamas, which has no interest in long-term peace with Israel. He presides over a corrupt human-rights and economic basket case, sustained by foreign aid—which might disappear should there come an end to Israeli rule. He has shown no willingness to compromise on either the Palestinian “right of return” or recognition of Israel as a Jewish state..  

Is Abbas really ready to deal? Is he in any position to?

3. There’s an alternative possibility: that Netanyahu is planning a far-reaching grand bargain, the terrorist release being step one. He has given compromising signals lately sufficient to alarm Israel’s nationalists. And John Kerry has been spending a lot of time in the area including, notably, in Jordan, which could add an interesting twist to the upcoming talks.   

Nearly every Prime Minister for the past 35 years—including Begin and Sharon—has been suddenly inspired to make some visionary peace move. These gambits always made some sense on paper, yet flopped when implemented.  

The list is disturbing: the elevation of Bashir Gemayel to become a pro-Israel Lebanese President (worked well for about a week, until forces loyal to Gemayel massacred Palestinians at Sabra and Shatila, followed by Gemayel’s assassination); the Oslo ingathering of exiled PLO terror leaders, installing them in power, giving them weapons and West Bank land; Israel’s initial policy to encourage Hamas activists as a counterweight to the secular PLO; the 2005 unilateral withdrawal of all Jews from Gaza, assumed to end all Gaza conflict; and entrusting the U.N. in 2006 to secure the peace in Lebanon and prevent Hezbollah from re-arming.

Israelis may be masters of intelligence. They may be military geniuses. But they are inept when it comes to visionary diplomatic moves—especially those whose success hinges on the misplaced belief in the good faith of others.

For the good of the region, let’s hope Netanyahu is no visionary.