Should Israel release Palestinian prisoners?

In order to facilitate the restart of peace negotiations, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has agreed to release 104 Palestinian prisoners serving long-term sentences. As usual, many have criticized this gesture, while others — though few — defend it as necessary. Israel Hayom has a poll that claims 84 percent of Israelis do not want a prisoner swap it if involves detainees with blood on their hands — code for prisoners who have killed Israelis.

For the most part, the critics assume the very idea of a peace process — prisoners or not — is untenable. Jennifer Rubin claims that, “No one knowledgeable about the Middle East, including the Israeli government, thinks the ‘peace process’ talks are going anywhere.” Consequently, she says:

When the talks go nowhere, as they inevitably will, what then? Some Palestinian murderers will be back on the street, the Palestinians will have given up nothing, and the disappointment from raised expectations will carry the risk of another intifada. On this one, the United States should never have asked and the Israelis were shortsighted, at the very least, in agreeing to go along.

Rubin’s views are consistent with sentiment from the Israeli right. Avi Naim, chair of the Forum of Judea and Samaria Regional Council Chairs, opined that “everyone knows in their heart that no peace agreement will come from this, and that Israelis will pay for it in blood.”

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On an emotional level, many see the prisoner release as sticking a knife in the wound of families who lost loved ones in terror attacks.  Abie Moses, whose five-year-old son and pregnant wife were killed in an attack in 1987, wrote an impassioned plea to Netanyahu: “the wounds have reopened; the memories, which we live with on a daily basis, turn into physical pain, in addition to the emotional pain of coping daily with the nightmare.”

Some on the left see these claims as fear-mongering. Amos Harel contends:

There was no real security argument here. A significant number of these prisoners are aged over 50, and it’s hard to imagine these Fatah oldsters resuming terror activity. What’s more, these are not people who specialized in firing rockets or building explosive devices for suicide attacks; in the pre-Oslo Accords days — when they were all arrested — Fatah didn’t yet carry out those kinds of attacks.

Nevertheless, some see the release as an important and necessary step toward peace. First, they note that these prisoners were already pledged to be released by the Sharm-Al-Sheikh Memorandum of 1999, which required the release of prisoners whose offenses were committed prior to Sept. 13, 1993, the day the Oslo Accords were signed on the White House lawn. Thus, the release can be seen as a goodwill gesture of fidelity to prior agreements.

Moreover, if you think releasing prisoners will lead to peace, it’s arguable that more Israeli lives will be saved in the long run. Yoram Cohen, head of Israel’s Shin Bet security service, while acknowledging the potential threat of releasing terrorists, also acknowledged that, “Entering negotiations with the Palestinians has a certain calming effect on the ground in Judea and Samaria, especially among operatives associated with the Palestinian Authority like the Fatah’s Tanzim members.”

Amos Harel, a Haaretz reporter, argues that this was a prudent political move considering external pressure:

The need to avoid having the United States blame Israel for sabotaging the talks; the fear of a violent outburst in the West Bank without the resumption of negotiations; and perhaps even the hope that the goodwill gesture toward the Palestinians would facilitate coordination with the Obama administration on the Iranian nuclear issue.

As many of the argument attempt to predict the future, only time will reveal who is right.

Joe Winkler is the online coordinator for JTA.