There were two forces at play in persuading the Israeli government to agree to release Palestinian prisoners as part of peace talks with the Palestinian Authority -- the Americans and the settlers. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has been walking the fine line along the two sides' firmest demands.
At Israel's request, Kerry got Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to promise that he would not approach the U.N. for unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state. At the PA's request, he got Israel to agree to release four groups of prisoners charged with security related crimes. This week, the second group is slated to be released.
Meanwhile, though, a secondary deal was also made within the Israeli coalition. In efforts to appease the settlers, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stressed that in a quid pro quo, while prisoners would be released, the construction in Jerusalem would continue. The settlers had the opportunity to agree to delay the construction by nine months and keep the prisoners in jail, if they felt that their release would endanger Israeli lives. The decision was in their hands, and they chose to go ahead with the deal -- cement in exchange for freedom. Netanyahu complied.
Releasing prisoners causes damage. In most instances, I would be the first to oppose such a move, even when prisoners were exchanged for Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit. But Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett's and Coalition Chairman MK Yariv Levin's surprise initiative to legislate a law against the release of prisoners convicted of security-related crimes is a case of much ado about nothing.
In a statement issued by Bennett's office, attributed to a number of senior Habyait Hayehudi officials, it was written that "the attempt to link the construction to the prisoner release is cynical and morally wrong. It would be better if the prime minister doesn't build and doesn't release prisoners. This looks like a delusional effort to release murderers while simultaneously maligning the settlement enterprise."
Is that so? Is there anyone else in Habayit Hayehudi who feels this way besides Bennett? On the contrary -- if Bennett could get a written statement from fellow party members Housing Minister Uri Ariel and MK Orit Struck declaring that they prefer halting settlement construction during the course of the peace talks just to prevent the release of prisoners, Netanyahu could offer Abbas an alternative agreement: a settlement construction freeze in exchange for not releasing prisoners. But the settlers are not willing to make such a declaration.
Bennett's and Levin's proposal, which was to be reviewed by the ministerial legislative committee on Sunday, is nothing more than a Habayit Hayehudi campaign ploy. It was meant to make Likud ministers look bad. Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon views this initiative as unnecessary. Culture and Sport Minister Limor Livnat is on the fence. Others are saying that we should focus on our current problems rather than worrying about future ones.
Obviously, the proposed bill cannot apply to the government's existing obligations. Abbas has not violated his end of the deal in a way that would in any way justify Israel reneging on its promises. Nevertheless, it would be wrong to pass this bill because one must never tie the hands of a future government with legislative shackles. The issue is a diplomatic one, which involves permissions and limitations within the realms of reason alone.
An Israeli government worthy of its name needs to have enough courage to stand its ground and refuse to release prisoners under unforeseeable circumstances, rather than hiding behind a law forbidding it from releasing them. A law tying the government's hands is a weapon reserved only for governments that don't trust themselves.