Encountering Peace: Time to get smart

The criteria for the release of Palestinian prisoners should be whether they will abstain from terror.

dont use 88 (photo credit:)
dont use 88
(photo credit: )
Crucial issues facing Israel are being determined almost devoid of public debate and engagement. The negotiations for the release of Gilad Schalit are taking place far beyond the public's scrutiny. One month after the kidnapping of Schalit, Hamas issued its demands for the release of 1000 Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails. According to reports in the news, Hamas submitted a list of 450 prisoners to be included in the deal and asked that Israel select an additional 550 prisoners. The Hamas list includes Palestinians responsible for the deaths of hundreds of innocent Israelis. The list also includes Hamas elected politicians and the leaders of Palestinian political and military factions, such as Marwan Barghouti from Fatah and Ahmed Saadat from the PFLP. Hamas has indicated over and over again during the past two years that it will not compromise on its list. There has been some talk that Hamas might be willing to consider the possibility that the most difficult prisoners to release could be sent to Gaza, although some Hamas leaders have indicated to me that if they accept this arrangement it would be for a limited time only. Hamas is willing to hold Schalit for years until Israel gives in to its demands. Israel is now holding more than 9,000 Palestinians including about 700 under administrative detention, held without trial. Hamas has included in its list prisoners from all of the political factions, including those arrested and convicted prior to the 1993 Oslo agreement. One of the considerations of the government in deciding whether or not to give in to Hamas demands is the clear "prize" that Hamas will receive from the Palestinian public for successfully freeing prisoners. The policy of the government is to officially take actions that weaken Hamas. Any prisoner release to Hamas will only achieve the opposite. The closing of Hamas-supported institutions and charities in the West Bank was aimed at achieving the same goal. In fact, the end result is actually the opposite. Those institutions - schools, kindergartens, clinics, charities, welfare associations - provided badly needed services to the Palestinian public but are not being replaced by the legitimate Palestinian Authority. Their closing was not in coordination with the PA, which should be providing these needed services, and the needy people of the West Bank who were clients of the Hamas institutions are now angry at the PA and even more so at Israel. The idea that punishing the civilian population through actions against the enemies of Israel will lead to moderation and support for potential partners for peace has never proven to work. Yet this policy continues to be implemented by the military governments that have run the affairs of the territories since 1967. Little, or no strategic thought at all, apparently, was given to how to enhance the country's primary national objectives vis-à-vis the Palestinians - meaning how do we strengthen our PA negotiating partners. THIS BRINGS us back to Schalit and prisoner release. It is quite clear that Hamas will not remove Marwan Barghouti from its list. Barghouti is known to be the most significant leader of Fatah in Palestine today, and he supports the peace process and the two-state solution. Convicted for assisting in the murder of Israelis during the second intifada, Barghouti in fact has no Jewish blood on his own hands. He was a leader who sent people to fight against Israel, but did not kill anyone. He refused to defend himself because he refused to recognize the legitimacy of the court to put on trial an elected Palestinian leader. If a deal for Schalit is reached, Barghouti will be released as part of that deal. The question is: Why give Barghouti as a gift to Hamas? The release of Barghouti not as part of the Schalit deal will immediately strengthen the Palestinian Authority and not Hamas. His release will also immediately turn the wheels of reform and reorganization that is so overdue and badly needed within Fatah and crucial for building public support in favor of a possible agreement. Presumably, the territories will return to new elections for both president and parliament at some time in the coming period. Reaching a negotiated agreement will strengthen the good chances of a victory of the supporters of peace in Palestine in those elections. A free Marwan Barghouti would significantly empower the peace camp and ensure victory for the agreement. Even without agreement, his release would significantly weaken the chances of a Hamas takeover of the West Bank like that in Gaza. Barghouti would not be the first terrorist leader released from prison for the purpose of making peace. The most well known similar case is Nelson Mandela, who led South Africa from the brink of destruction to a peace settlement that has given the African continent a new chance. I KNOW Marwan Barghouti quite well. I spent hundreds of hours in dialogue with him, together with several people who are now ministers in the Israeli government. The biggest supporters of the release of Barghouthi in Israel are those who participated in those talks in the 1990s. Then defense minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, who served at the time of Barghouti's capture, is one of the loudest supporters of releasing him now. There will be no deal if the main criteria on whom to release is the issue of blood on their hands. Instead, it must be whether or not they will return to terror activities. There are no guarantees, but the assessments of the professionals in the security services must be taken seriously. As pointed out above, additional criteria should be employed as well - such as the need to strengthen the PA leadership in the context of negotiations. The prisoner issue is the number one issue on the Palestinian public agenda. Palestinian leaders say, "We have more than 9,000 Gilad Schalits." With so many Palestinians in Israeli prisons, there must be a mechanism within the peace process that allows for the regular release of those prisoners whom the security professionals assess are not dangerous and can be used to strengthen the moderate leadership. Every policy implemented has direct consequences. Closing Hamas institutions without a plan to replace the services they provide, or releasing prisoners to Hamas while not releasing prisoners to President Mahmoud Abbas, both have extremely negative consequences. It is time for Israel to not only be right, it is time for Israel to be smart. The writer is co-CEO of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information.