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.