The prisoner dilemma

The United States made it clear that the responsibility for failure of the talks would be placed on Israel’s shoulders, and the punishment would be diplomatic isolation.

Women hold up pictures of Palestinian prisoners 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Majed Jaber)
Women hold up pictures of Palestinian prisoners 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Majed Jaber)
The government this week approved the release of 26 Palestinian security prisoners as part of the first installment required by the agreement reached between Israel and the Palestinians to return to negotiations.
Overall, 104 inmates are to be released in four stages.
We have to admit that something strange is happening in the dynamics of the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. To understand what is happening and what might happen later, we should examine this dynamic from two points of view – Israeli and Palestinian.
Anyone who carefully examines the moves undertaken now by the mediating US sees that most of the energy is being spent on managing policy and marketing efforts of the process itself, focusing on the mere existence of the negotiations between the parties.
Nobody talks about principles.
They are not dealing with goals, nor do they clarify what would be considered a success and what would be remembered as a failure.
Based on the principle of the well-known Canadian media researcher Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980), who argued that “the medium is the message,” here also the achievement is the very existence of the talks. It doesn’t matter what happens at the moment and what the consequences will be.
For example, look at the solemn declarations in Israel and the US about signing the agreement to resume the negotiations.
What’s more important is that the commitment of Israel to release 104 security prisoners, including terrorists and murderers, was given to the Palestinians in exchange for their consent to return to the negotiating table.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas could seemingly boast a real achievement in the release of the prisoners, a sensitive issue among the Palestinian people.
In return, however, Israel received only two things: Palestinian consent to sit down to negotiations, and don’t lodge an official request to stop settlement construction, although it is clear that this demand still exists.
And yet no one, as expected, is really satisfied. The Palestinians are disappointed because the released prisoners are too few and too old, and many of them belong to Hamas.
Abbas’s associates claim that the move actually weakens him on the Palestinian street because of the release of Hamas terrorists to the Gaza Strip.
Israelis, on the other hand, are upset about the release of murderers of Jews who were supposed to spend the rest of their lives in prison.
We should understand that neither side will ever be satisfied.
Palestinians demand and expect the release of all security prisoners from Israeli jails. And the citizens of Israel will not be able to live with such a move, especially when there is no real progress in the peace process.
The dangers in implementing the process are clear. The return of hundreds of experienced terrorists who already committed murder and who were schooled in Israeli prisons is a move that may encourage young Palestinians to continue the path of armed struggle. For it is clear to them that they will eventually be released even if they kill.
The move also will strengthen Hamas in the Gaza Strip, from which most of the prisoners originated. Palestinian security forces will not make efforts to monitor the released prisoners in the absence of motivation.
While in Gaza the release represents a strengthening of Hamas, in the West Bank it supposedly symbolizes the victory of Fatah over Israel. Hence most of the burden will fall on Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), which could do its job very well but will be robbed of energy and precious resources.
Unfortunately, experience shows that most of the released prisoners are recidivist. Terror is the only way they know. However, they are older and weary after years in prison, and perhaps would prefer to return to normal lives with their families.
Such a quantity and quality of discharged prisoners is not expected to create a critical mass of motivated terrorist activity against Israel. But it does encourage morale on the Palestinian street while damaging Israeli morale.
It is likely that those who choose to return to terrorism will find themselves back in Israeli prisons and interrogation rooms, even if that happens after we pay a high price.
The Palestinian street delighted in the releases, but was disappointed over the small numbers amid the opportunity to release all prisoners. Israelis on the other hand sense a loss of deterrence.
The only hope for both sides is that upon completion of negotiations there will be a full release of the prisoners and, on the other hand, a full peace agreement with the Palestinians.
Such an achievement is a very important Israeli interest and we should be ready to make painful concessions, including the release of such prisoners. The question is: Didn’t we give up too fast and give too much for too little? The answer is seemingly simple.
Releasing murderous terrorists before starting real and substantive negotiations is a very bold move and somewhat dangerous for Israel. We have already paid a heavy price, but got nothing in exchange.
But Binyamin Netanyahu didn’t have many choices.
American pressure exerted by Secretary of State John Kerry left him no choice. The United States made it clear that the responsibility for failure of the talks would be placed on Israel’s shoulders, and the punishment would be diplomatic isolation. In such a situation, Netanyahu had no option other to enter into negotiations that will probably not lead anywhere but cost us dearly.
The writer is a former brigadiergeneral who served as a division head in the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency).