The Release of Palestinian Prisoners Will Not Bring Peace

Prime ministers in democratic countries frequently have the occupational hazard of having to make difficult and unpleasant decisions.  Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has for over a year been confronted by the dilemma of making such decisions and concessions to the Palestinians in order to revive peace talks, brokered by the United States, between the two peoples.

The concessions were made in July of last year, when the Israeli government agreed to release 104 Palestinian prisoners in four stages.  The government decision was upheld and approved by the Israeli Supreme Court in October 2013 after an organization of the bereaved Israeli families had challenged the government decision.

The first 26 prisoners were released in August 2012; the second 26 were released on October 30, 2013.  All of the latter 26, 21 of whom come from the West Bank and 5 from the Gaza Strip, have been convicted of murder or attempted murder.  All the offenses, many of which were brutal attacks on Israelis, were committed before the 1993 Oslo Accords, and the prisoners have served between 19 and 28 years in prison.  The prisoner serving the longest time is an individual who murdered 2 Israeli university students while they were hiking south of Jerusalem in 1984.

One can understand that the release of the second batch of prisoners is another goodwill gesture by Netanyahu to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and one partly due to pressure by the Obama administration.  It is also understandable, and commendable in an abstract way, that Netanyahu insists on honoring government decisions and commitments he made.

The Israeli government has the power to decide to release the prisoners, and the decision does not require parliamentary approval.  The decision, in addition to causing anguish and anger for the bereaved Israeli families, has also divided political leaders inside and outside the government coalition.  Naftali Bennett, Chairman of the Jewish Home Party and Minister for the Economy and Trade, has opposed the decision, while Tzipi Liv ni, Justice Minister, and her Hatnauh Party support it.  One can understand that the decision is part of complex international politics in which Israel is involved.  Yet in view of the political division in the country, it is difficult to accept the position that the decision is part of a long-term strategy, as Netanyahu has claimed, that will be successful.

A number of issues can be raised. First is that the release of the prisoners is a gratuitous insult to the victims and their families, who still suffer from the murders of their loved ones by terrorists.  What is noticeable is the absence of any statement by President Abbas or any other Palestinian leader, whether a potential participant in negotiations or not, of regret or apology for the behavior of the murderers.

Certainly this is not to be expected from the leaders of Hamas.  It seems improbable that those prisoners are likely to be punished in any way for their murders.  It is much more likely they will be treated as heroes and greeted with welcoming ceremonies.  It is equally likely that the five going back to Hama and the Gaza Strip will return to violence and engage in more terrorist activities.

Clearly the released terrorists have not renounced their past, nor made any promise not to commit future terrorist acts.  Israel has already been made aware of this problem.  In December 2011 it released 1,027 prisoners in return for the release of Gilad Shalit, the IDF soldier who had been kidnapped by Hamas.  It is known that some of those released had resumed terrorist activity.

It is improbable that releasing the prisoners will help forward the peace process or have any connection with it.  One may ask which other country has released terrorists to appease terrorist countries or groups.  In spite of the professed desire of President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder to close it down, the Guantánamo Bay camp remains as the place of detention of terrorists or suspected terrorists.  None of the more than 250 detainees have been released.  It was always a fantasy to think, as Holder believed, that real benefits would flow from the closure of the Guantánamo facility.

Most important is the refusal of the Palestinian Authority to enter into peace talks without concessions by Israel and the setting of preconditions.  It cannot be sufficiently stated that the stumbling block for any peace settlement is the refusal by the Palestinians, and still some of the Arab states, to accept the existence and legitimacy of the Jewish State of Israel.  The release of the prisoners is not in consonance with a forthright declaration of this kind.  No peace is possible without such a declaration.  The release of the prisoners is not a crime, but it is a political blunder.

Michael Curtis is the author of Jews, Antisemitism, and the Middle East.