The third phase of the Palestinian prisoner release was more difficult than its predecessors. The fourth will be harder than the third. Will Israeli Arab murderers be set free? Will this only happen in exchange for Jonathan Pollard? Has U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry tricked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu? Has he fooled Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas? Perhaps he has misled them both? Have none of these matters been agreed upon yet?
These burning questions can provide the fuel for many a headline read in an upheaval of emotion. But at the core of the American mediator's efforts is a framework outline for a final status agreement. Israelis close to the negotiations say he has an incorrigible work ethic, but no one could have known to what extent.
Kerry is pushing for the core issue. On the one hand, he wants the territorial negotiations over 1967 borders to be based on mutual land swaps, which allow Israel to retain the large settlement blocs. On the other hand, he is seeking Palestinian recognition that the future agreement -- even if it needs to be reached in stages -- will mark the end of the conflict and make Israel a legitimate Jewish state.
The Americans, for the time being, are showing restraint. They are doubtful whether Netanyahu and Abbas -- each for his own reason -- are sincerely and earnestly working toward a final status agreement, or have the ability to do so in the first place. The framework deal is intended to provide an answer to those questions for them. Additionally, they have not yet determined whether an interim deal is in the cards for either side.
Netanyahu's position is complicated because he has detractors not only in the opposition but also in his own coalition and party, while chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat is ratcheting up the pressure on Israel, claiming that Abbas has no one to talk to.
On Monday we saw a clear expression of this as Netanyahu told members of his faction that Israel has committed to refrain from unilaterally creating facts on the ground. It's too bad he didn't say these things two days ago, which would have spared the Likud-Beytenu ministers the embarrassment and pointlessness of voting in favor of the proposal to annex Jewish communities in the Jordan Valley.
Monday's tumultuous terrorist release, along with public statements by Netanyahu, Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, testify to heated contention behind the scenes. Who was Ya'alon talking to when he said he prefers a European boycott to rockets being fired at Ben-Gurion International Airport? It's easy to assume that this is part of the domestic dispute. These sentiments were not directed at Kerry or Abbas.
Habayit Hayehudi Chairman Naftali Bennett represented this week the typical Israeli position on this crucial issue: The public has shown that it handles terrorism better than the threat of economic and academic isolation. This, too, will influence Israel's answer to Kerry.