The lesser of three evils

Once it made the mistake of agreeing to bribe the PA, freeing killers was Israel’s least bad option.

Palestinians in Ramallah hold pictures of prisoners 370 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman)
Palestinians in Ramallah hold pictures of prisoners 370 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman)
Kudos to Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz for having the courage to tell the truth when lying would have been much more convenient: Freeing Palestinian murderers, he said, is less strategically damaging than freezing construction in the settlements would be.
This isn’t because the costs of freeing murderers aren’t appalling; they are, and the government should never have agreed to pay such a price to resume “peace talks.” But having made the initial mistake of bowing to Washington’s dictate that it pay the Palestinians one of three outrageous bribes – agreeing in advance to a border based on the pre-1967 lines, freezing Jewish construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, or freeing 104 of the longest-serving Palestinian prisoners, whose lengthy sentences reflect their heinous crimes – Steinitz is correct that freeing prisoners was the lesser evil.
Agreeing to the pre-1967 lines is clearly a nonstarter, since that would sacrifice one of Israel’s most vital long-term interests: defensible borders. Very few security experts consider the pre-1967 lines defensible, and most Israelis agree: That’s why one recent poll found that 63% opposed withdrawing from the Jordan Valley, while another last year found that 66% (and among Jews, 76%) opposed withdrawing to the 1967 lines even in exchange for an end to the conflict. That’s also why UN Security Council Resolution 242, the foundation of the peace process, was deliberately worded to let Israel keep some of the territories captured in the 1967 Six-Day War: As Arthur Goldberg, Washington’s then-ambassador to the UN, subsequently explained, the pre-1967 lines “had proved to be notably insecure.”
But preferring a prisoner release to a settlement freeze may seem counter-intuitive. After all, a prisoner release has numerous obviously destructive consequences. It encourages terrorism, both because 60% of freed prisoners resume terrorist activity and because it teaches would-be terrorists they needn’t fear spending long in jail if caught. It undermines the justice system by turning both the law and judicial decisions into empty pronouncements: As a PA minister correctly said last week, the mass release of prisoners sentenced to life means “the Israeli concept of ‘life in prison’ has collapsed.” It devastates the victims and their families; it rewards the Palestinians’ intransigence by giving them a concession usually made only after a treaty is signed just for agreeing to hold talks; and it teaches the world to view Jewish blood as cheap.
By comparison, the consequences of a settlement freeze may seem trivial at first glance: What’s so terrible about delaying construction of a few thousand homes for nine months? That’s precisely why 63% of Israelis say they would have preferred a settlement freeze to the prisoner release. That’s also why opponents of the settlements have seized the opportunity to blame the wildly unpopular release (78% of Israelis oppose it) on the settlers and their political supporters, charging that had the latter not adamantly refused to countenance a settlement freeze, the government wouldn’t have been forced to accept a prisoner release instead.
Given this atmosphere, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his allies must surely have been tempted to keep quiet and let the settlers reap the blame for the unpopular release; to imply that Netanyahu preferred a settlement freeze, but was forced instead to accept the prisoner release by his coalition’s right flank (the Bayit Yehudi party and many members of his own Likud). But Steinitz, one of Netanyahu’s closest allies, courageously rejected that temptation: He forthrightly acknowledged that the government chose the prisoner release because it was less strategically damaging than a settlement freeze. And in that, it was absolutely correct.
Agreeing to freeze Jewish construction in east Jerusalem and the West Bank while allowing Palestinian building to continue would be tantamount to accepting the erroneous definition of these areas as “occupied Palestinian territory,” rather than disputed territory to which Israel has a valid claim. After all, building on one’s own land is perfectly legitimate; it’s only building on someone else’s land that’s forbidden. Thus if Palestinians can build in east Jerusalem and the West Bank while Israelis cannot, the land must belong to the Palestinians rather than Israel.
But if so, Israel has no valid claim to retain any of this land: By what conceivable right can a thief retain stolen goods? Freezing settlements would thus amount to tacitly conceding that the final border should by rights be based on the indefensible 1967 lines – the very condition the government correctly rejected out of hand.
Moreover, the history of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations shows that Israel can’t hope to retain areas it deems necessary for defense without large-scale construction, because Europe and Washington have both long since jettisoned the premise that shaped Resolution 242 – that Israel’s legal and historical rights to the territories, combined with its security needs, justify it retaining part of the West Bank.  Even for very minor adjustments to the 1967 lines, the only justification the West now acknowledges is the sheer impracticability of expecting any Israeli government to forcibly uproot hundreds of thousands of Israelis from their homes.
That’s precisely why every Western peace plan ever proposed has included Israel retaining Jewish neighborhoods of east Jerusalem and the major settlement blocs – not because the West recognizes any Israeli rights to these areas, but because there are simply too many Jews living there to make their evacuation feasible. Hence it’s vital for Israel to also put as many Jewish residents as possible into other areas it wants to keep under a final-status deal – and that requires building houses for them.
The security risk posed by indefensible borders is long-term and irreversible, whereas the risk posed by prisoner releases is shorter-term and at least partially reversible (freed prisoners can always be rearrested). Thus while the government made a terrible mistake when it adopted the self-defeating strategy of bribing the Palestinians to come back to the table, once having made this mistake, it was right to choose the only item on Washington’s menu of approved bribes with no impact on Israel’s final borders. In a choice between reversible and irreversible harm, the former is always the lesser evil.