Netanyahu’s Defining Hour

Netanyahu

While the world watches Kiev, the Middle East peace process is once again on the verge of collapse. After almost nine months of feverish efforts by Secretary of State John Kerry, we’re now less than a month away from the deadline for an agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians. The prospects of reaching any form of agreement in late April are grim, and the current standoff over this weekend’s aborted prisoner release threatens to definitively end this round of talks.

Twenty-six Palestinians prisoners, all of whom had been convicted before the 1993 Oslo Accords, were slated to be released this past Saturday as part of the original agreement reached last July. Now, under increasing pressure from hardline members of the Likud and Jewish Home parties, Prime Minister Netanyahu is demanding that the Palestinians commit to extending the peace process beyond April before he will release this final group of prisoners. Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas has called these tactics “blackmail” and is unequivocal in his refusal to link the prisoner release to an extension of talks. So we’re back at impasse – an all-too-familiar state for Israeli-Arab peace talks. The indefatigable John Kerry has taken an emergency trip to the region to try to salvage the process; there’s now talk of a broader deal in which the Americans would incentivize Israeli cooperation by releasing Jonathan Pollard, a convicted spy whose actions and long US prison sentence have won him sympathy among Israelis.

Such a deal would be a mistake. Now is not the time for the US to make concessions on behalf of Israel; now is the time for much-needed political courage from Netanyahu, whose credibility and commitment to the peace process have been in question since the first days of this peace process. When Netanyahu and Abbas agreed to restart peace talks, it was under the condition that Israel would release 104 prisoners and the Palestinian Authority would temporarily halt their efforts to achieve recognition as a state in international organizations, such as the International Criminal Court. To date, the Palestinian Authority has upheld its end of the bargain, and while the Israeli government has made good on its word to release the first three tranches of prisoners, each release was coupled with the announcement of new settlement constructions – a move that decimated any “good-will” resulting from the prisoner release and did little to bolster Israel’s credibility in the eyes of its negotiating partners.

Lacking any positive momentum from these past three prisoner exchanges, it’s no surprise that Netanyahu is skeptical of the value of releasing this fourth and final group. But there has not yet been a prisoner release that fulfilled the agreement as originally intended. In this critical moment of the peace process, an unconditional release of the final group of prisoners could go a long way toward restoring a minimal level of trust and good will, and toward signaling Israel’s intention to negotiate in good faith.

Critics say that the Israeli public will not stand for an unconditioned prisoner release, that public opinion is overwhelmingly opposed to the idea of releasing “terrorists” in light of the deep mistrust, stalled negotiations, and escalating violence. Yet if we look back to past prisoner releases in Israel, we know this is not always true: in 2011, at a time of escalating violence between the two sides, Israelis rejoiced when over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners were released in order to secure Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit’s release. Earlier prisoner exchanges with Hezbollah were also largely accepted by the public, in spite of the lopsided nature of the deals. With some clever public diplomacy, an unconditioned release of this last group of prisoners could be marketed as Israel’s grand gesture to the Palestinian Authority, one that comes at the eleventh hour of negotiations and with a serious expectation of reciprocity.

Such a move, by definition, has no guarantees. Abbas could warmly welcome the final batch of “terrorists” and still refuse to extend negotiations with the Israelis. But at the very least, this would break the impasse and place the responsibility to continue negotiating back on the shoulders of the Palestinian Authority: Abbas would have to explicitly choose to end the peace process rather than allowing it to simply peter out after the failed prisoner release.

As for the Americans, John Kerry’s efforts may be “messianic,” as they were memorably described by Defense Minister Ya’alon, and there’s no doubt that he will go to great lengths to keep the prisoner release crisis from torpedoing the broader peace process. But Kerry would do well to remember that as the mediator, the United States should not be the only party at the table making difficult concessions: the two parties also need to be willing to do some of the painful concession-making and political cajoling. Netanyahu’s unconditional release of the fourth batch of prisoners would be a positive step away from the cliff and back onto the negotiating track.

Lauren Harrison is currently a German Chancellor Fellow in Berlin and a non-resident fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. She studies mediation in foreign policy, and is researching Germany’s role in Israel’s prisoner exchanges.

  • Guadamour

    israel has never negotiated in good faith. It stole Palestine’s land in 1948 and continues to steal it. An International Peace-Keeping force needs to take over the occupied territories, tear down the wall, and return the land lost in the 11967 Israel instigated 6 day war, and all the lands it has tolen since.

  • [email protected]

    This analysis is simply ill-informed or downright disingenuous. The ball won’t go back to the Palestinian Camp if their illegally detained citizens are released. The Israeli government will still need to answer for extrajudicial kidnapping and incarceration…not to mention reports of inhumane treatment toward their captives.

  • Larinthian

    This article did a great job in describing why there hasn’t been peace between Israel and the Palestinians. First of all, the idea of releasing Palestinian terrorists from prison is ludicrous and self defeating to Israel. The article comments that “this is no time to make concessions to the Israelis,” demonstrates the bias and bigotry of most people who are involved in “peace talks.” To be sure, it was a colossal mistake to have ever agreed to release Palestinian terrorists from prison and for that the Prime Minister must take responsibility. Apparently, it’s okay for the Palestinians to continue to shoot rockets into Israel, have Palestinians break into family’s homes and slash their throats, have an innocent nine year old Israeli child getting shot in the chest while playing in her own back yard by Palestinian terrorists, have Palestinians thugs pull over an IDF official while driving and then be murdered with bats and metal bars, have Israeli women be abducted, assaulted, raped, and murdered, approve a Palestinian coalition government comprised of Fatah and Hamas, both terrorists groups, just to name a few examples of what goes on in Israel by amoral, neanderthal criminals. Speaking of Hamas, I guess it’s fine for them to kidnap three Israeli students while they were coming home from school. At the same time, I have yet to hear any concessions from the Palestinians. But, the reason for this situation is because Israel continues to make one concession after another and their inability to stand up for themselves against Obama, the Europeans, and organizations like the United Nations and European Union. The pro Arab side can spin it all they want, but those are the cold, hard facts. I don’t recall the international community ever condemning the Palestinians for their ongoing murder campaign against Israel. Peace will only be achieved when the Palestinians decide to abandon their terrorist charter against Israel and the international community holds the Palestinians responsible for their despicable actions. There should be no further negotiations until the Palestinians demonstrate in action, not just words, that they want peace. Yet, with all of this evidence, the Pro Palestinian side will continue to claim that the “settlements” are the root cause of not having peace. Here is a news flash, long before there were any settlements, the Palestinians had many opportunities to claim their own state. Instead, they decided it’s more important to keep the propaganda machine running at full strength. In addition, the “settlements” came about as a result of Israel being attacked by several Arab countries, unprovoked and simultaneously, The Arabs lost the war and as a result lost land. This is not a new concept, it has been standard procedure for many years. You can’t have it both ways, start an unprovoked war, lose, but then maintain territory. When you play with fire, you get burnt.