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(Washington, D.C.) — A new round of Middle East peace talks are set to begin Monday and Tuesday evenings here in D.C. That’s a hopeful sign. There haven’t been face-to-face negotiations between senior Israeli and Palestinian officials in years.
But why are they beginning with the Israelis agreeing to release 104 convicted Palestinian terrorists?
Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas refused to agree to the talks unless Israel made a big concession. Abbas pressed hard for the release of convicted terrorists as one of those concessions. But why? Do you convince your interlocutors — or the rest of the world — that you really want peace by insisting on the release of Arabs who have murdered Israelis? Hardly.
That said, it’s bad enough that Abbas insisted on such a thing, but why exactly did the Israeli government say yes? These are hardened criminals. These are convicted criminals. These are criminals with blood on their hands. Why not agree to a different Abbas demand, like freezing settlement construction for a few months? Or not agree to any preconditions, like Netanyahu has been saying for the last three years? If you’re going to give some ground (and sometimes making a goodwill gesture is wise), why then make the release of 104 terrorists your first priority?
It makes no sense to me.
I want to see Israelis and Palestinians make peace. I want them to make goodwill gestures towards each other. I want the ice to thaw. But I don’t want to see murderers released. That won’t lead to peace, only to more terrorism.
But that’s what Israel just did. Here are the details.
“The [Israeli] cabinet paved the way on Sunday for negotiations with the Palestinians to start informally in Washington on Monday, as it voted 13-7 to approve the talks and empower a ministerial committee to release 104 Palestinian prisoners over the next nine months,” reports the Jerusalem Post.
“Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who heads the Israeli negotiating team, and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s envoy Yitzhak Molcho left Sunday evening for the U.S.,” notes the Post. “They were expected to hold a preliminary meeting Monday at US Secretary of State John Kerry’s home with Palestinian negotiators Saeb Erekat and Mohammad Shtayyeh, and then begin the negotiations in earnest on Tuesday. Kerry phoned Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas Sunday evening to extend a formal invitation to the talks. According to a statement put out by the State Department, the meetings will ‘serve as an opportunity to develop a procedural work plan for how the parties can proceed with the negotiations in the coming months.'”
“The decision to approve in principle the release of prisoners — and to set up a ministerial committee empowered to determine when and which prisoners will be released — came at the end of a nearly six-hour, sometimes emotional, cabinet meeting.:
Cabinet Ministers who voted against releasing the Palestinian terrorists:
- Gilad Erdan (Likud)
- Israel Katz (Likud)
- Yair Shamir ( Yisrael Beytenu)
- Uzi Landau (Yisrael Beytenu)
- Naftali Bennett (Bayit Yehudi)
- Uri Ariel (Bayit Yehudi)
- Uri Orbach (Bayit Yehudi)
Cabinet Ministers who abstained:
- Silvan Shalom (Likud)
- Limor Livnat (Likud)
Cabinet Ministers who voted for the proposal:
- Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu (Likud)
- Yuval Steinitz (Likud)
- Moshe Ya’alon (Likud)
- Gideon Sa’ar (Likud)
- Sofa Landver (Yisrael Beytenu)
- Yitzhak Aharonovitch (Yisrael Beytenu)
- Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid)
- Yael German (Yesh Atid)
- Yaakov Peri (Yesh Atid)
- Shai Piron (Yesh Atid)
- Meir Cohen (Yesh Atid)
- Tzipi Livni (Hatnua)
- Amir Peretz (Hatnua)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that approving the releases was a deeply painful decision, but one that served the wider interests of the state. Underlining the anguish and divisions over the move, two ministers from Netanyahu’s own Likud party voted against it, and two more abstained.
The list approved by the Cabinet did not include any Israeli-Arab pre-Oslo convicts. Palestinian officials quoted on Israel’s Channel 10 news said Sunday night that this was a problem, since they said Netanyahu had pledged to release more than a dozen Israeli-Arabs.
The committee that will handle the process of four phased releases as the talks continue will be made up of Netanyahu, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, Science Minister Yaakov Peri and Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch. It will decide which prisoners on the list of 104 will go free at what stage, determine whether they will be allowed to return to their homes or be sent into exile, and oversee the implementation.
Peri, a former Shin Bet head who belongs to the centrist Yesh Atid party, was a last-minute addition meant to ensure Netanyahu a majority in the small panel in the event that Ya’alon and Aharonovitch decided to torpedo aspects of the deal.
Peri confirmed after the vote that the list of 104 names did not include any Israeli Arab citizens, more than a dozen of whom have been held since for pre-Oslo terrorist crimes. If their releases were sought, he said, that would require further debate. Ya’alon had objected particularly strenuously to freeing Israeli Arabs since, he said, the Palestinian leadership did not represent them.