Thursday April 24, 2014
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24.04.2014
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'Don't free Palestinian prisoners without Pollard'
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Dan Margalit

Should we tie our hands?

Passover 1957. A group of Israel Defense Forces soldiers accompany a group of Israel Scouts hikers en route to Masada. At one point, one of the soldiers is dispatched to the nearby Kibbutz Ein Gedi to deliver an urgent message (back then there were no cellphones or sophisticated communication devices). The soldier, whom I happen to know pretty well, wants to hasten his arrival. He figures he should take a shortcut by walking along a dry creek in the desert.

At the bank of the desert wash, he realizes he must jump. But it is risky. At first he wavers, because he is afraid. But he is still resolved to shorten his path. He then wraps his submachine gun in a sack and throws it down. At this point he is certain he would have to jump -- he knows that otherwise he would be court-martialed and sent to prison for losing his weapon. So he overcomes his fear, and jumps.

The decision to jump was both smart and productive. The circumstances surrounding this decision were faulty. He had no courage and determination; so he made sure he had no choice.

This strange incident sprung to mind when I read about the coalition MKs and their various proposals to undermine the upcoming release of Palestinian prisoners. Next week, Israel plans to release Palestinians who were convicted of terrorist attacks and other national security crimes; the prisoners will walk out of prison as per a pledge Israel made when the peace talks resumed. This is the third group of prisoners it will have released since. According to the MKs, since the government cannot withstand outside pressure and since it is poised to release the murderers, the submachine gun must be thrown down to the creek; in other words, they want the Knesset to pass a bill that would empower a special committee or the courts to make that decision and have the ministers stripped of this authority. The law would essentially prohibit the release of prisoners.

This may produce good results. Judges have no desire to be popular; they don't run for office nor do they compete in primaries; they wield greater influence than the average politician. But regardless of the outcome, the process will have been flawed to begin with. If the government believes it must jump -- that is, if it believes it should avoid the release of prisoners -- it must marshal the political will and psychological stamina to do so without throwing the submachine gun; without letting other bodies decide on this, as some of the proposed legislation calls for.

The proposed bills would preclude a prisoner release even when unusual circumstances arise; even if an unusual event would make it necessary to deviate from the accepted norms governing prisoner releases. By doing that the bills will have preempted what is necessary. Any such legislation is essentially a no-confidence motion against the government, any government.

The political and psychological predicament of the politicians and the ministers do not warrant this legislative mirage. The Israeli government should also forego the mirage on foreign policy. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has recently asked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu not to link the release of prisoners with the planned issuance of new tenders in Judea and Samaria. This new announcement of tenders is another way of throwing the submachine gun.

For Israel, the rationale laid out by the Americans and the Europeans for delaying the announcement is unacceptable. But Israel can still reap a political dividend if it decides to heed their demand: by doing so the Israeli government would avoid a situation in which it tells its citizens that it needs a rhetorical remedy (or, actually, a bricks-and-mortar remedy) that would alleviate the pain associated with the prisoner release.

If it chooses to exercise restraint -- by ploughing through without having new construction tenders serve as painkillers -- it will have bolstered its public image. When the dust settles -- say after a week or after 20 days -- it would be able to announce more construction. Otherwise, other countries might view the linkage as an Israeli weakness. A strong government does not throw a submachine gun to the dry creek just so it could overcome the fear of jumping off the bank.

Right of return -- solved?

I have talked with Dr. Yossi Beilin (a former cabinet minister and Meretz leader) on multiple occasions. We talked about ways that could free Israel of the need to expel Jews from their homes in Judea and Samaria once a two-state solution is reached. We were of the opinion that Jewish residents of Judea and Samaria who choose to live in a Palestinian state (that is, outside the settlement blocs that will remain under Israeli sovereignty) would be able to continue leading an autonomous, Hebrew-centric life, along the lines of what the Arabs in Nazareth and Rahat currently enjoy in Israel.

Beilin, though, has recently developed this idea even further. He holds that the number of settlers who would agree to live in a Palestinian state would reach, at most, tens of thousands (out of a total of hundreds of thousands). Three years after the agreement comes into force, a census would be taken, says Beilin. If the census shows that only 30,000 Jews remain in Palestinian-controlled areas, a similar amount of Palestinians would be granted entry to pre-1967 Israel. The Right of Return will have been resolved.

This merits serious thought; Beilin always had a prodigious mind.

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