On Saturday night, March 29, Israel, according to the framework for negotiations with the Palestinians that US Secretary of State John Kerry worked out last July, is scheduled to release the fourth and final batch of 26 Palestinian security prisoners.
It is now five days before the scheduled release, and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has not given any indication about whether he plans to go ahead with it.
The reason might not only have to do with the difficulties in the negotiations with the Palestinians, and that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas essentially rejected the framework document Kerry was pushing that he hoped would serve as a basis for continuing negotiations.
The reason may also have to do with what Netanyahu will face two days later: the Likud party convention.
Releasing another batch of convicted Palestinian terrorists with “blood on their hands,” even if the list does not include the Israeli Arabs the Palestinians are demanding, is not something Netanyahu needs accompanying him to his party’s parley.
Especially not a convention where Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon is challenging Netanyahu’s authority and flexing his own political muscles.
This is the same Danon who said he would quit his post if the government goes ahead and approves the release, something that would, indeed, win him applause by many of the party stalwarts at the convention.
In a perfect peace process, or at least in a world in which both sides were actually interested in these negotiations succeeding, Abbas would agree to delay the prisoner release by a week or two. This would buy his “peace partner” some political space, allowing him to first survive the Likud convention politically in one piece, and then push through the final prisoner release.
But this is definitely not that perfect peace process, and neither Abbas nor Netanyahu sees the other as a partner whom he is interested in helping out politically for the sake of salvaging the process.
After eight months of talks carried on by their underlings, these two leaders are light-years away from that degree of intimacy.
Furthermore, many in Jerusalem believe Abbas is just waiting for the current negotiations to fall apart, so he can then implement his Plan B: resume the diplomatic war of attrition against Israel that was interrupted last summer when Kerry pushed the sides back to the table.
Under this plan, Abbas will once again seek Palestinian recognition in various international forums around the world, perhaps taking Israel to the International Criminal Court. He will work to get the world to step in and impose a solution on Israel that he believes will come closer than the current negotiations to meeting his maximalist demands.
In this scenario, he has no interest in agreeing to delay the prisoner release by even a few days to make it politically easier for Netanyahu to carry it out, because if the prisoners are not released, he can leave the talks and say he is doing so because Israel has not fulfilled its commitments.Jerusalem, then, will be blamed.
The wild card in all this is Jonathan Pollard. If, as some reports have indicated, the US is considering releasing Pollard as a way for the government to agree to release Israeli Arabs in the last batch of terrorists to be set free, then everything is thrown wide open.
That would not only increase the chances of the cabinet actually voting to include Israeli Arabs in the prisoner release. It would also significantly make the Likud party convention – which may seem to some like petty party politics, but which could have huge ramifications that will be felt across the diplomatic board – much easier for Netanyahu.