Twenty-six convicted Palestinian terrorists, their hands red with the blood of civilians they murdered, were expected to be released early Tuesday morning and hailed as heroes in Ramallah.
These terrorists, like the 52 already released, and 26 more that Israel is scheduled to let go by the end of April, are the price Israel agreed to pay last July to get the Palestinians back to the negotiation table.The price the Palestinians paid: agreeing to put on hold its efforts to gain entrance as a state in various international bodies.The terrorists’ release should be seen by the world as an indication of Israel’s seriousness about trying to reach a peace deal. It should be seen as a huge and excruciatingly painful price to pay. But it won’t.Instead, the world will focus on the Ministerial Legislative Committee’s decision on Sunday – a largely symbolic move that has little chance of becoming law any time soon – to annex the Jordan Valley.And, of course, the world will soon focus on an expected upcoming announcement of further construction in the settlements.Instead of the release of the terrorists showing how far Israel is willing to go, a purely symbolic vote will be seen as a sign that Israel does not really want peace, and instead is only interested in throwing one obstacle after another into its path.Any international goodwill, or any international appreciation of the sacrifices Israel is willing to pay, has been overshadowed by the Jordan Valley vote. And it will be even more overshadowed in a few days when the government announces plans to build new housing units in east Jerusalem neighborhoods and the settlements, mostly in the settlement blocs.This is what happened when Israel released the first group of prisoners in August, and again when it released the second batch in October.Each release was accompanied by settlement plan announcements.Israel says it has scrupulously abided by the terms of entering into the negotiations.Though this may be true, and though Israel made no commitment to freeze construction, it matters little in the capitals of Europe, where the focus will be on the settlements, not on the fact that Israel was willing to release terrorists just to restart talks.Moreover, this time, the expected announcement of settlement construction was preceded by an announcement two weeks ago that such an announcement was forthcoming. This pre-announcement triggered criticism.There will surely be plenty more once the actual declaration is made, and then – as is always the case – there will be more censure during each stage of the planning and building process. It takes special artistry to not only announce the plans, ensuring harsh criticism, but to announce the announcement, ensuring a double scoop of condemnation.Both the ministerial vote and the expected settlement construction announcement can be explained as the products of Israeli domestic politics.Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu needs construction announcements to follow the release of prisoners to quiet down the right flank both in his party and in the coalition.The Likud ministers and MKs pushing for the Jordan Valley annexation move needed it to quiet down their constituents, who will likely be displeased when US Secretary of State John Kerry unfurls a document expected to lay out in broad strokes the principles of an agreement with the Palestinians that is likely to entail deep Israeli concessions.Domestic political considerations are real, and initiating certain steps because of them is legitimate. But the consequences of these steps should also be kept in mind, and the immediate shortterm consequence is that Israel is taking a heart-wrenching step in releasing terrorists but doesn’t get anywhere close to the rightful credit it deserves for this in the international arena.