For several days we have heard the pluses and minuses of an apparently simple, but actually complex decision by Israeli government ministers to release some 104 prisoners for the sake of negotiations with the Palestinians.
The decision is complex because it was made in principle, with important details left for later, and for a more limited forum to decide on the timing and the details.
Given the circumstances that may develop, some, most, or even all of those prisoners may stay where they are for years.
Palestinians have agreed that the release will be in stages, as negotiations continue, if they continue.
Still hanging is the issue of releasing prisoners who are Israeli citizens. Close to the actual vote, Prime Minister Netanyahu separated out this especially contentious item, and left it to be voted on at a later date. Those opposed to releasing Israeli Arabs see it as Palestinian interference in Israeli internal affairs, and creating an undesirable linkage between the Arab citizens of Israel and the Palestine Authority that may one day become the State of Palestine.
We won''t know for a couple of days at least if the removal for the time being of some prisoners from the Palestinians'' list of demands will prompt them to end negotiations before they go any further.
If Palestinians accept this modification, it will demonstrate once again that these negotiations involve numerous issues, and provide room, despite the pain, for each side to decide which are more or less important, and what each concession might be worth in demanding something from the other side.
No doubt releasing prisoners is painful. But if negotiations actually go forward to a final or a significant interim agreement, it will be only one of several painful decisions having to be made. Israel still has control of territory the Palestinians would like, and is the stronger party with respect to numerous issues on the agenda.. Extremists within the Palestinian camp are acting parallel to Israelis who are demonstrating and asserting that their leaders have given up too much. Palestinian opponents of Abbas and his party have have denied them control over the Gaza half of Palestine, and opponents within the West Bank are angry because he hasn''t demanded more of Israel, or is even willing to negotiate with the Jewish state.
Critics say that the decision about releasing prisoners represents Israel caving in to Palestinian demands about terms for beginning negotiations. Maybe. But it may also be viewed as part of an early stage of negotiations that began some time ago with John Kerry shuffling and telephoning between the parties. Israel also got some things from that early stage, including avoiding any overt recognition of the 1967 borders, and the designation by the US that Israel is the state of the Jewish people.
The claim that the prisoners to be released are likely to revert to violence is probably not as true as it was in the case of previous prisoner releases, including the most recent group released in order to obtain Gilad Shalit. The prisoners to be released in connection with coming stages in negotiations have served at least 20 years in prison, and for the most part are old enough so that their return to violence is improbable. Moreover, their terms of 20 years or more is about what many murderers serve in Israel and other western countries.
Was the government''s decision a good one, or at least minimally acceptable?
Perhaps the most convincing argument was heard from a minister who expressed his distaste, but said he would vote with the Prime Minister in order to avoid the charge that Israel had scuttled negotiations before they actually got underway.
The minister went on to associate his decision with Israel''s problematic status in international politics. This is a time of political weakness and vulnerability, and not a good time to insist on too many demands.
Involved here is the recent decision of the European Union to end financing of Israeli projects on the wrong side of the 1967 borders, and the increase in European and American business firms--and some European governments--acting against the products coming from Israeli factories over those lines.
However, the same set of issues has led Israel to declare actions against the European Union. Israeli officials will no longer cooperate with EU officials with respect to projects in areas of the West Bank under Israeli control, and will not allow EU officials to enter Gaza via Israel.
It is too early to predict how much muscle Israel has with respect to the European Union, but the question points to the numerous issues intertwined along with the Obama-Kerry initiatives.
It is not easy, or even possible, to decide with certainty who or what influences who or what, much less what will be the ultimate impact of these amorphous ingredients in the political soup.
As in any complex soup, it is not possible to say with certainty what each ingredient contributes which portion of the final taste.
Among the complications are the competing calculations as to whether this is a good time to proceed with negotiations.
On the one hand is the view that the chaos in neighboring Syria and Egypt, likely to spread over the Syrian border with Lebanon and other unsettled conditions a bit further afield in Tunisia, Libya, and elsewhere are not the conditions when Israel ought to be making concessions, or when Palestinian leaders ought to risk their security by agreeing to deal with Israel.
On the other hand is the view that the West Bank island of relative stability among Muslim entities provides an opportunity to reach agreement with the Palestinians that may even protect that little place and our slightly larger place from the chaos elsewhere.
The decision on prisoners will serve Israel''s interests, especially if the committee given responsibility for implementing it chooses to release the oldest, least heinous, and least likely to be dangerous prisoners first, and escalates up to the more problematic cases only if negotiations actually continue and show some promise.
We can only judge the value of this decision in light of others. If postponing agreement on releasing Israeli Arabs causes the Palestinians to walk away, the decision will have been an acceptable device to force the Palestinian hand and show them to be truly concerned only with their own nonnegotiable demands.
Given the resources and the quality of government apparent in the two regimes, an early end of negotiations without any tangible results would be more harmful for Palestinians than Israelis.
If, in contrast, the decision allows the continuation of negotiations that produce at least a significant interim agreement, and perhaps something even more substantial, then the decision will have proved its worth.
The ideal would be outcomes that allow the leaders of both regimes to claim that they have gained more than they have sacrificed, and are positioned to lead their people to live even better in the future, perhaps with joint economic projects between Israel, Palestine, and other neighbors.
Politics, like business, is a process of continuing to deal, with the value of any one decision apparent in what it facilitates for subsequent deals.
We are a long way of knowing how the latest detail will contribute to whatever develops hereabouts.