Back in the days of the Oslo Accords, Israel demanded that the peace process be a phased affair, with a transaction and then something of a waiting period, followed by another transaction and a similar waiting period, and then further transactions and waiting periods. It was all to gauge whether the other side could be trusted before heading into the really big stuff – refugees, Jerusalem and final borders.
The phases were seen as ways to build confidence, especially for a scenario in which one side is asked to give up important tangible assets in return for mere promises. For Israelis, the method could be traced back to Egypt – the post-Yom Kippur War period and into the mid-1970s, and the Camp David Accords and peace treaty later in the decade.
Give and see what happens. If it goes well, give again. It’s all a matter of building enough confidence to be able to trust the other side.
Start, of course, with the little stuff.
TO MANY people, releasing terrorists, even one, is not “little stuff.” To me, it’s a pretty big deal, almost as big as the matter of final borders. As far as I’m concerned, as part of a peace process you start letting imprisoned terrorists go only once things have moved forward enough to make you reasonably confident that the ultimate goal is attainable.
They’re not hostages – you put and keep them behind bars because terror is appallingly wrong and not only must its perpetrators be severely punished, it must be seen by one and all that they are severely punished.
There’s also the matter of recidivism.
Worse, going easy on terrorists encourages others to become terrorists. Kill an Israeli and go to prison, knowing you’ll be housed, fed and able to improve your Hebrew and even get a college degree. Your family will receive a Palestinian Authority stipend for the duration. And once there’s some light at the end of the peace tunnel (or your compatriots have kidnapped another Israeli to use as a bargaining chip for your release), there’s a good chance you’ll be freed and welcomed with a wild homecoming and a tidy pension for life. Not bad at all.
So it raised the ire of many last July when Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu yielded to US demands that, as an inducement to get the Palestinians back to the peace table for the first time in some three years, he release over 100 security prisoners jailed prior to the 1993 Oslo Accords. Why release terrorists, many asked, instead of acceding to another key Palestinian demand, this one for a building freeze in West Bank settlements? That kind of inducement can be canceled and even reversed if things go wrong. It will be a lot harder, if not impossible, to round up released prisoners.
As I wrote in these pages early last August: “In the open letter Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s office released last Saturday evening to justify Netanyahu’s stand on a prisoner release, the prime minister did not sound too optimistic. He said that one reason it was ‘important’ to return to talks was ‘to exhaust the chances of ending the conflict with the Palestinians’ – not to try to achieve peace or somehow obtain a modicum of momentum for the process to continue, or something else sounding even vaguely hopeful or sincere… If that’s his approach to the peace process, why do something so permanent?” Worse, there was a yawning gap in expectations as to just whom to release. The Palestinians demanded that some of the freed prisoners be Arabs with Israeli citizenship.
Israel said no way – the fate of these prisoners was a matter of national sovereignty in which no one can tell us what to do.
But the Americans seemed anxious to get the sides talking again, so the matter was swept under the rug, apparently in a nod by Secretary of State John Kerry to one of his predecessors, Henry Kissinger, who was a big believer in something he liked to call “constructive ambiguity.” Let the chips fall later where they may, according to this school of thought – for now, the sides were talking again.
Needless to say, it doesn’t seem like much, if anything, was accomplished by the sides in the past eight months – not that much of anything was expected, to judge by the way everyone responded to the renewed contacts. Yet when the time came for the fourth of four prisoner releases on March 29, one month before the end of the time designated for talks, Israel balked. It was reported that Netanyahu told Likud cabinet ministers the next day that he would not go ahead “without a clear benefit for Israel in return.”
Benefit? I’d like to see something along those lines, too, but the “benefit,” as with the three previous prisoner releases, was in getting the Palestinians back to the negotiating table. No more, no less. That was what Netanyahu, back in July, agreed to – erringly, in my opinion: a total of 104 prisoners to be freed at four predetermined periods of time, 26 prisoners per release, so that the talks would resume at least until the end of April 2014.
Of course after he balked, plenty of people came to Netanyahu’s defense, citing the Palestinians’ nonstop trash talk about unilateral statehood, but especially their gall in having welcomed home the first 78 prisoners the way they did. Yet did anyone among us – hands on hearts, please – really think those prisoners would return to empty, silent streets? This is the way the Palestinians do it, whether we like it or not. Release prisoners and there are fireworks and fantasias, music and dancing, ecstatic crowds reveling into the night. It burns me, too. But subdued receptions were not part of the deal.
Peace talks were, even if they led to nothing.
Peace talks and prisoner releases.
Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday, Kerry dejectedly pointed to Israel’s very public (no, let’s call it loud) decision to issue tenders for 700 housing units in Gilo, a Jerusalem neighborhood over the Green Line, as the breaking point.
“The prisoners were not released by Israel on the day they were supposed to be released and then another day passed and another day, and then 700 units were approved in Jerusalem and then poof – that was sort of the moment,” he told the senators.
Notice, though, where he started the narrative. Clearly, that balk on the prisoners got his and everyone’s attention.
AS THIS is being written, the sides seem at least vaguely aware that things have gotten out of control, something that can be good for no one save, perhaps, Hamas and the rejectionists. If second thoughts result in anything, it should be to turn the whole misadventure into a learning experience.
For us it should be that deals are meant to be kept. Either that or don’t make them.
Let us keep in mind that one of the excuses we hear most often from opponents of the peace process is that the agreements we make with the Arabs are not worth the paper they’re written on. The reasons usually given are that Arab regimes change and Arab alliances change, and even that Arabs, owing to their culture or religion, can lie if they deem it expedient, especially when dealing with non-Arabs or non-Muslims.
We say this derisively, the way we used to highlight our democratic way of life by pointing at the Arabs and sneering that they change their governments through the barrel of a gun.
Now that we have a prime minister in the ground thanks to a bullet in the back, we can’t do that anymore. The last thing we need to hear right now is that we can no longer beg out of deals by complaining it’s the other side that can’t be trusted.
As much as we question – justifiably – our adversaries’ honesty and sincerity, we have to admit that this time we certainly gave them an opening to go nuts.