Grumpy old man: Hell no, don’t let them go

Releasing terrorists just to get the Palestinians back to peace talks should go against one of our core human values.

Demonstration against Palestinian prisoners release 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Demonstration against Palestinian prisoners release 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Who’da thought I’d ever side with MKs from Bayit Yehudi or the loony Right flank of the Likud on matters concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? I’m a two-stater. Anyone who thinks Israel can get away with annexing the territories and remaining a state for the Jewish people, much less a “democratic” state, either has poor math skills, is delusional in thinking that the Palestinians will acquiesce to lesser rights or agree to be resettled elsewhere, or is so devoutly religious as to believe that God somehow will see us through our coming travails.
But here I am, nodding in agreement with MK Yoni Chetboun (Bayit Yehudi), that eminent lawmaker who said earlier this week at a demonstration that releasing Palestinian prisoners who murdered or planned the murders of Israeli civilians meant “giving in to terror and turning our backs on bereaved families.” And with Danny Danon (Likud), our illustrious deputy defense minister, who said that those set free “will be considered celebrities by Palestinian children, and will be sent from stage to stage.”
FOR ME, terrorism has always been personal.
It has struck down people I’ve known.
During certain hot periods, it has led me to think twice about getting on a bus. It has made me look at every unattended bag and briefcase as a bomb with my name on it.
Vestige of the ’70s that I am, I think I’m the only one left who gets itchy when walking by any large kitchen appliance left outside for the junkman. And why not? I walked by and was just around the corner when the refrigerator blew up in Zion Square in 1975.
(And speaking of Danon’s “celebrities,” look at the distinguished funeral the Palestinian Authority just gave the purveyor of that attack, Ahmed Abu al-Sukkar, who died last month of natural causes at 78.) Terrorism leaves a chilling imprint. You don’t have to see the blood and body parts to be sickened. Worse, it is too often an irreversible process. The dead cannot be brought back to life, and many among the badly maimed can never be made whole again. (The same goes for their families.) The immediate effect is no different from that of a battlefield. Yet the implications go much deeper.
While terrorism is an indiscriminate process, the real targets are not soldiers arrayed in combat formation or even just carrying personal weapons. The targets are those who cannot defend themselves at all, the younger or older the better. And therein lies the great differentiator, the element that perhaps best accentuates the “us” vs “them,” for if there is one thing that sets us apart from the Arab world, it is our values about life. You needn’t look far for proof these days, whether it’s in Syria or in Egypt.
It is true that there have been Jewish terrorists. They and their supporters are among the scum of our society and should be treated accordingly. Yet such behavior among Jews has never been more than an anomaly. Similarly, some of our politicians and a handful of senior people in uniform might have a somewhat cavalier attitude toward collateral damage. But I don’t recall a single instance in which our side, as a policy, has ever specifically gone after toddlers or old people with a drone – or with any weapon for that matter.
Does this make me feel that Arabs are bloodthirsty? No. Does it make me think they are natural-born killers? No. What I do believe is this: Their culture has less aversion to death than does ours. Ask the mother of just about any dead suicide bomber.
If they were to limit this to their own side or perhaps to attacks on our combat troops, as the Japanese did in World War II, I’d say this would be something for the textbooks. But they don’t. They go after people who are weak and defenseless. And perhaps most agonizing for those of us willing to make huge concessions and even endanger ourselves to make peace, they then spit in our collective face and name public squares and school gymnasiums after the people who carry out these attacks – when at the very least they could just pretend to have changed.
This is enough of a difference for us to capitalize on if we’re to say that we as Israelis are decent people with core human values – whether it’s in our policies for averting terrorism or our policies for punishing terrorists.
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. I’d like to think it was a slip of the keyboard, but our prime minister’s history tells me otherwise.
If that’s his approach to the peace process, why do something so permanent? Sure, some of the prisoners would be released soon on the basis of time served, but others have some serious stir left. So why not offer, say, a settlement freeze? It was another of the preconditions Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas laid out for returning to talks.
Netanyahu has declared a freeze before.
True, a lot of good it did – Abbas loosened up only in the eleventh hour, too late for anyone to maintain momentum. But what bad did it do? What did it cost us? Some individuals might have faced financial penalties (and their losses should have been covered by the government), but at the end of the 10 months we went right back to building. And something more: The whole thing enabled us to make an important point to US President Barack Obama, who committed a severe tactical blunder by having brought up the idea of a settlement freeze in the first place: Think before you open your altruistic mouth.
As we proved, a freeze can always be reversed.
The release of prisoners can’t, at least not without risking the lives of soldiers and security personnel once again.
Where I seem to differ from some right-wingers who are against a prisoner release lies in the when. I believe you can and even must bend your values a bit when it comes to swaps, as took place with Gilad Schalit, or when there’s a done deal that both sides can swallow and it’s time to pay.
But merely to get the Palestinians to sit down and start talking? I can think of a lot of things we might have done to nudge Abbas & Co. back to the table. If the Palestinians were to demand that our prime minister shave his head, I’d say do it. A great comb-over can always grow back.
But so early in the game – nay, before the game can even start – imprisoned terrorists should be off-limits. Not just because they might be recidivists or because their freedom could embolden others who note the revolving door or because it would deeply sadden the families of the victims. Keeping them behind bars would maintain a potent symbol not only of who we are, but of who we aren’t.