After a four year stalemate, the Palestinian and Israeli parties laid the groundwork to resume negotiations on the so-called “final status” issues that must be resolved to end the dispute. Amidst much hype, the first ‘peace talks’ commenced in Washington this week.
The talks started over dinner on Monday night, with Israel represented by Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Yitzhak Molcho, a close aide to Netanyahu, and the Palestinians by chief negotiator Saeb Erekat and Mohammed Ishtyeh.
The Israeli cabinet paved the way for the renewal of negotiations with the Palestinians, after it voted 13-7 to approve the talks, (two abstained). Central to this vote was the condition that 104 Palestinian prisoners be released as a ‘goodwill gesture’ over the next nine months.
Essentially, both sides have agreed in principle to a nine month timeline for negotiations. Netanyahu has said that any potential peace deal with the Palestinians hereafter will be put to the Israeli public as a referendum.
US Secretary of State, John Kerry, told the Times of Israel that the upcoming nine months would “seek to resolve all issues between the parties, seemingly shelving any notion of an interim agreement.”
He continued; “The parties have agreed that all the final status issues, all the core issues and all other issues are on the table for negotiations.”
Previous attempts to resolve the decades-old conflict had sought to ward off deadlock and the risk of violence by tackling easier disputes first and deferring the most emotional ones, like the fate of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees.
To forgo decisions on final status issues now, would be oddly reminiscent of the failed Oslo attempt of the 1990’s. Yet, both Livni and Erekat came out and said that in contrast to previous attempts, all final status issues are on the table.
However, the ‘the vision’ laid out by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Monday where he said that “no Israeli settlers or border forces could remain in a future Palestinian state and that Palestinians deem illegal all Jewish settlement building within the land occupied in the 1967 Middle East war,” suggests that the two parties are still mountains apart when it comes to reaching any agreement on final status issues. Abbas’ sentiment here hardly seems conciliatory and understandably, affirmed the beliefs of many sceptics.
Netanyahu confirmed that Israel would go ahead with the release of 104 Palestinian prisoners. All incarcerated for attacks that took place prior to the 1993 Oslo Accords, the prisoners are to be released in four stages to coincide with progress in negotiations
The list of prisoners to be released (including 19 Israeli Arabs) has been made public, and already many relatives of terror victims, have taken to the streets in protest. These prisoners have served between 19-30years in prison for murder of Israelis.
The two longest-serving prisoners are Karim and Maher Younis, Arab-Israelis from Wadi Ara who were convicted of the murder of IDF soldier Avraham Brumberg in 1981. They were sentenced to life in prison and both had their sentences reduced to 40 years.
Other prisoners include Jumaa Adem and Mahmoud Kharbish who hurled a firebomb at a bus in the Jordan Valley in 1988. The attack left five dead: Rachel Weiss and her three kids and soldier David Dolorosa who tried to save them.
As always, the release of Palestinian prisoners has polarized Israeli society. Seeking to placate public discontent, Netanyahu issued an open letter to the Israeli public for what he called “an incredibly tough decision.”
“It is painful to the bereaved families, it is painful to the Israeli people and it is very painful to me. It clashes with the value of justice. It is an obvious injustice that criminals, even if most of them spent more than 20 years in prison, be released before they finish serving their sentence.”
I suggest you read the full text linked above. It is a moving example of the difficulty and complexity of the situation.
Many believe that Israel’s past history of releasing Palestinian prisoners, and receiving no guarantee of security in response, is cause for overwhelming pessimism.
Earlier this week, Amy Palmor, head of the pardons department at the Justice Ministry gave a survey on the prisoners Israel has released since 2003; 430 in the Tenenbaum deal, 1,000 in the Shalit deal, 400 in exchange for Azzam Azzam, and an undisclosed number in exchange for Ilan Grapel. Israel has also released between 200 and 400 prisoners as part of gestures towards the PA in the last decade. Of the 1,000 prisoners released in the Shalit deal, 44 have already been rearrested for terrorist activities.
The main opposition to the move inside the cabinet came from Naphtali Bennett, who said the prisoner release was a “slippery slope.”
“Once we released a terrorist in return for a soldier, then we released hundreds of terrorists for a soldier, then hundreds of terrorists for a dead soldier,” he said. “Now we are releasing a hundred terrorists for ‘process.’ We are showing the world that for us everything is negotiable.”
It’s a Catch-22:
From Israel’s perspective, the message this sends is problematic. While Israel wants to demonstrate its commitment to recommencing peace talks, a justice system that regularly acts in contradiction to its own rulings is hard to take seriously. Releasing those who were sentenced to lengthy jail terms for heinous crimes, following diplomatic decisions, severely undermines its judiciary decision-making.
Further, in recent weeks Israel has taken a massive blow on the international arena, most recently with the EU boycott on funding for projects beyond the green line. This ultimatum of releasing prisoners is yet another in a string of disproportionate demands being made of Israel. It is indeed intolerable that Israel is being put in this position before the meeting in Washington has even begun, and the Palestinians have not offered any concessions.
However, Likud’s Gideon Sa’ar said that a prisoner release is an important diplomatic move for Israel as it would ward off a crisis with the West and is preferable to talks based on the 1967 borders or a construction freeze in the settlements.
“If there is no majority for the proposal, it doesn’t only mean that we refuse to release the prisoners. It means that we refuse to renew negotiations and that Israel will be blamed. And that’s a far greater gift to the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, and to the PA, than those prisoners,” he said.
In Commentary Magazine, Jonathan Tobin asks why the US is demanding Israel do something it would never do itself.
“Would we ever think of releasing any of those convicted and currently serving long jail sentences for involvement in the 9/11 attacks or any other terrorist assault on the United States and its citizens? Not a chance.” I recommend you read the article linked above.
Martin Indyk appointed envoy to head negotiations:
The appointment of former US Ambassador to Israel, Martin Indyk, as envoy to the Middle East, has received mixed responses. During the Oslo peace talks in the 1990s, Indyk served twice as President Bill Clinton’s ambassador to Israel, and once in the post he now re-assumes as top Middle East peace envoy.
President Obama has come out in strong support of Indyk to head the negotiations, according to the Times of Israel. Obama said Indyk brings “unique experience and insight to this role, which will allow him to contribute immediately as the parties begin down the tough, but necessary, path of negotiations.”
However, the choice of Indyk has come under fire by some critics. In an article for The Jerusalem Post, Isi Leibler said an “honest broker is essential to the process. However, Martin Indyk is not that broker”
He continued; “His track record in presiding over previous peace negotiations indicates that if re-appointed, he will, in all probability, direct negotiations in a manner to ensure that Israel will be blamed for their failure.”
The New York Times said that when it comes to the intricacies of issues of the conflict like the future borders, security arrangements and the status of Jerusalem, the Middle East peace talks that resumed Mondaynight are dominated by two simple questions:
“If it took Secretary of State John Kerry countless phone calls and six trips to the Middle East just to get Israeli and Palestinian officials to the negotiating table, how will it be possible to achieve a comprehensive peace agreement? And what will happen if his herculean negotiating efforts fall short?”
The unsatisfying truth is that the time and sacrifice it took to merely get to the starting point of negotiations is quite discouraging. Either way, the ‘hoorah’ in Washington is only the prelude for the real work to be done in Ramallah and Jerusalem in the coming weeks.
We will keep you informed as events progress.
Media and Advocacy Director
Zionist Federation of Australia