Israel is reneging on its promise to release Palestinian prisoners

That’s the long and short of this latest ‘crisis’ in the peace talks.

This couldn’t be more black-and white, more writ in bold, if Israel set off fireworks in the night sky that spelled out: “WE LIED.” Netanyahu and his government – including, very forthrightly, house “peacenik” Tzipi Livni – are reneging on their promise to free 26 Palestinian and Israeli Arab prisoners on Friday.

The numbers, the names, the date of release were all agreed on between Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas and overseen by Secretary of State Kerry when the current peace talks, such as they are, began last July. The Israeli cabinet approved the prisoner agreement on July 28 by a vote of 13 to 7 with two abstentions. But now Netanyahu and Co. are  saying they won’t free the prisoners – all in jail on murder charges since before the 1993 Oslo Accord – unless Abbas agrees to go on with the talks beyond their April 29 time limit, and to again set aside his plans to pursue statehood via international avenues such as The Hague.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas delivers a speech to released Palestinian prisoners, at his headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah, August 14. (
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas delivers a speech to released Palestinian prisoners, at his headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah, August 14. (

“[T]he keys to the prison doors are in the hands of Abu Mazen and the decisions he will take in the coming days,” Livni warned last week. Israel’s co-negotiator at the peace talks insisted that the government never made an “automatic commitment to release prisoners unrelated to making progress in negotiations.”

She’s lying. There are no conditions, no caveats in the deal. Abbas did not agree to make what Israel would consider “progress” in return for the prisoners’ release; he simply agreed not to go to the UN or make any other unilateral moves for the nine-month duration of the talks, and in return Israel agreed to release the 104 prisoners in four groups at the appointed times. (Israel freed the first 78 prisoners as promised; the 26 who were slated to be released Friday are the last on the list.)

It’s comic how ministers in the government are trying to weasel their way out of this. From the New York Times this week:

“We are entering a critical stage,” Yitzhak Aharonovich, one of five Israeli ministers responsible for approving the list of prisoners for release, said Sunday on Israel Radio. “Commitments must be honored,” he said. “The question is, does the other side honor the commitments?”

How have the Palestinians failed to honor their commitments? By declining to applaud each recent announcement of massive settlement construction? That is the only “progress” that’s been made since the talks began.

So Israel is going back on its word regarding the key commitment it made to Abbas and Kerry, the promise that allowed these peace talks to go forward in the first place. Abbas says he isn’t standing for it, and the Palestinians are accusing Israel, with 100 percent justification, of “political blackmail.”

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And what is Kerry doing? He’s in Amman today (Wednesday) trying to talk Abbas into agreeing to extend the peace talks, which very likely would get Netanyahu to agree to release the last 26 prisoners. In other words, Kerry is trying to get Abbas to do something he really doesn’t want to do in return for something Israel already promised to give him.

If Kerry had any backbone, he would tell Netanyahu, “Either you keep your word and release those prisoners on Friday, or you and your country will pay a heavy price.” Fat chance of that.

It would be nice, though, if the world outside America and Israel realized that this new “crisis” in the peace talks, the one over the prisoner release, is about nothing more or less than Israel breaking its side of the agreement. As in virtually every other dispute related to the occupation, it’s not that Israel and the Palestinians are both partly wrong and partly right, it’s that Israel is completely wrong and the Palestinians completely right.

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