Sunday, August 11, 2013

Peace Talks and Prisoners

As you've probably heard by now, Israel and the Palestinian Authority have resumed peace talks after Israel agreed to release over one hundred Palestinian prisoners. The prisoner release has caused some controversy. Just over half the cabinet (13 out of 22) voted for it. There were protests that included people who lost relatives to terrorist attacks. "It rips our heart out that they are aiding and abetting the terrorists," said one protester.

Sorry, but I can't share in the outrage. First, of course, there's the Gilad Shalit case of 2011, in which Israel released over one thousand Palestinian prisoners, including people responsible for some truly heinous crimes, in exchange for an abducted Israeli soldier. It would take us too far off topic to go into all the things wrong with that decision, but it was generally supported by Israelis. The difference is that they knew what were getting; one of the ministers who voted "no" said that this time, "there is no certain reward for Israel and its citizens." So, on the one hand, a thousand terrorists in exchange for  a single soldier with certainty; on the other a hundred terrorists in exchange for the possibility of peace. I think that any reasonable estimate of lives saved by peace would show that even if the possibility is small, the second is a better deal.

Second, the normal sentence for ordinary murder in Israel is 20-30 years. All the prisoners were convicted before the Oslo accords between Israel and the PLO in 1993, so they've all served at least 20 years.

Third, and most important, there was an easy alternative to the prisoner release: a freeze on the construction of Israeli settlements on the West Bank . That has been the Palestinian demand all along before they would return to peace talks, and it's not hard to see why. Without it, Netanyahu could just string the talks out indefinitely, while the settlements got bigger and bigger. But the Israeli government wouldn't do a settlement freeze. So, no talks, until the U.S. came up with the prisoner-release plan..

Actually, I am a bit surprised that the Palestinians agreed to the deal. It was a brilliant idea by John Kerry (or, more likely, some State Department policy wonk) to come up with this alternative, to give Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas a face-saving way of going back to negotiations without getting his key demand. I would presume that he got some kind of guarantee from the U.S. that the talks would not drag on forever.

Do the talks have any chance of success? This episode suggests that the toughest problem will not be, as many think, Jerusalem or the refugees. The political hot potato for any politician of the Israeli right is the settlements, which have strong support from parts of the right's political base. How hot is the potato? Hot enough that Netanyahu would rather release a hundred convicted terrorists than deal with it,

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