On Sunday, Israel's Cabinet voted in favour of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's proposal to release 104 "heavyweight" Palestinian prisoners still languishing in Israeli jails. The goodwill gesture hopes to pave the way for the revival of peace negotiations and, for the Palestinian side, forms a pre-cursor to their beginning.
After the commencement of the weekly cabinet meeting 90 minutes late as the desperate Prime Minister wrangled with the ministers for their support, thirteen ministers in Netanyahu's cabinet authorised the release, seven voted against and two abstained, a government official said.
While the cabinet agreed to release the Palestinian prisoners, the fate of Arab-Israeli prisoners was postponed. These prisoners are expected to be the last to be released, and before they are it is likely to go back to a Cabinet vote. This may not please Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas who demanded their inclusion as part of pre-conditions for beginning the talks.
According to the Jerusalem Post, during the tense Cabinet meeting and in an attempt to win over the opposition, Minister Silvan Shalom presented an outline by which the votes for the release of Palestinian prisoners and Arab-Israeli prisoners would be carried out separately. The prime minister said that the special ministerial committee he will head will determine which Arab-Israeli prisoners will be released.
Most of the prisoners slated for release have been languishing behind bars for over 20 years, their arrests predating the 1993 Oslo Accords. Their release is part of a deal orchestrated by US State of Secretary John Kerry in an attempt to bring both parties back to the negotiation table and comes after 4 months of intensive discussions. The prisoners are scheduled to be released in four stages over nine months, beginning a month after the resumption of talks.
Talks to renew talks are scheduled to be on the agenda in Washington as soon as Tuesday for Palestine's chief negotiator Saeb Erekat and his Israeli counterpart Tzipi Livni, much to the pleasure of Kerry.
The meaning of the release
The deeply contentious issue of prisoner releases divides the general public on both sides, pitting Palestinian citizens who see the prisoners as political in nature against Israelis who see them as "terrorists".
For the Palestinians the prisoner issue reflects not only the past, but the present. Yasser Arafat's words, "There will be no peace until all Palestinian prisoners are released," written in a telegram to the families of Palestinian prisoners, are no less relevant for Palestinians today. According to prisoner rights group Addameer the current number of Palestinian political prisoners and detainees behind bars in Israeli jails stands at an estimated 4,979, many of whom endure daily abuse and severe deprivation of human rights.
"These people who are now over 50 years old, all of them sick, need to be released to their homes," said Qadura Fares, head of the Palestinian Prisoners' Club which tracks the well-being of Palestinians in Israeli jails, on Sunday.
For Israeli citizens the release of prisoners with "blood on their hands" is seen as a compromise too far. According to a poll representing a sample of 500 Israelis, 80 per cent of secular Jews and over 95 per cent of conservative and orthodox Jews objected to the gesture.
Speaking before the cabinet vote, Lt-Col. Meir Indor, head of the Almagor Terror Victims Association, told MEMO, "Who'd have thought? Bogi, Bennett, Lieberman, Ariel, the nationalist Knesset members from the Likud—all may soon be accomplices of a government that releases murderers for the dubious honour of sitting down for talks with the Palestinians; talks that will go nowhere, as always."
On the release being a precondition by the Palestinians for talks to recommence, he said, "Then we don't need 'peace' with them. Better law and justice without peace than a 'peace' without law and justice."
In recognition of the public discord over this issue, on Saturday Netanyahu released an open letter stating, "From time to time, prime ministers are called on to make decisions that go against public opinion – when the matter is important for the country. In order to make decisions that are supported by the public, there is no need for prime ministers."
Netanyahu's decision and the public dismay it caused has been seized on by right wing elements of Israeli politics. Naftali Bennet of the Jewish Home Party said on army radio, "Not one murderer can be let out." He declared, "This isn't a gesture it's a disgrace… why should we have to give over murderers in order to receive the dubious privilege of being able to negotiate with Abbas?"
His response echoes a younger Netanyahu, who as Chairman of the Likud party, spoke about the release of 199 Palestinian prisoners in 2008 as a gesture to Abbas: "The government has decided to release prisoners, and I ask why? For what? What did we receive? This crossing of a line, this release of murderers, is a dangerous move in the war on terror."
But while the decision is seen as a positive step towards peace talks, the reality and effectiveness of the goodwill gesture is questionable. The Jerusalem Post reported that of the 238 Palestinians released as part of the 1985 Jibril Agreement, nearly 50 per cent were eventually re-arrested by Israel. During the year following the Annapolis Conference in 2008, whilst Israel released 770 Palestinian prisoners, according to the Palestinian Monitoring Group, Israel also arrested/and or detained a further 4,945 Palestinians.
Re-arrests are commonplace and are supported by a dubious law passed in 2009. Article 186 of Israeli military order 1651 allows a special Israeli military committee to imprison released Palestinian prisoners for the remainder of their original sentences, based on undisclosed evidence that isn't shared with the prisoners or their lawyers. In other words, they may well be released but also stand a good chance of being re-arrested almost straight away.
Thus, while the release of the prisoners has indeed attracted ample media attention, with the gesture giving rise to the hope that Netanyahu is dedicated to paving the way for genuine peace negotiations, it is difficult to tell how meaningful such a release will be.
It may succeed in bringing Erekat to the table in Washington, but Kerry has a long battle ahead to find any agreement over the very same issues that led to the three year breakdown of peace talks. For the people of Palestine who took to the streets yesterday to protest against the return to talks whilst Israel continues to approve further settlement housing at the expense of Palestinian livelihoods, it may not be enough to quell a population that is increasingly seeing the Abbas leadership as a tool in the hands of the occupier.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.