Israel’s release of Palestinian prisoners advances peace talks
JERUSALEM – The Israeli government approved Sunday the release of 26 Palestinian prisoners despite strong opposition from ultra-right ministers. The release is the second phase of a four-stage agreement Israel reached with the Palestinians in July for the resumption of direct peace negotiations between the two sides.
The decision to restart the talks came after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry launched an intensive diplomatic campaign after assuming office in February. Kerry has imposed a media blackout on the talks and very few reports on the progress, or lack thereof, have been made public. However, the fact that Israel will release more prisoners could be seen as a sign that Kerry’s strategy appears to be working.
Analysts that spoke to Xinhua said that Israel would never plan to release any prisoners if the talks had collapsed.
Professor Gabriel Ben-Dor, of the University of Haifa, told Xinhua on Sunday that the Israeli government’s decision indicates that the peace talks are “still alive” and “they haven’t lost the momentum completely.”
Kerry’s efforts to conceal the talks from the media appear to be working, in the sense that neither side has been accused by its people of breaking any of their preconditions or demands set for the other, Ben-Dor said.
The release of prisoners is a sensitive issue in Israel, especially since some of the prisoners released in the previous round had “blood on their hands,” a phrase used in Israel to describe prisoners who had killed Israelis. And while the decision has led to tensions in Israel’s coalition government, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that promises must be kept.
“Netanyahu has a very clear majority in favor of that and he will overcome the crisis, it’s just an internal argument in the government but once the government makes a decision then they will go through with it,” Ben-Dor said, commenting on the cabinet’s approval of the release of more Palestinian prisoners.
Through his media-blackout approach, Kerry was able to get the parties to resume negotiations by simply not stating whether or not either side had backtracked on their preconditions. And in addition he was able to get Israel to agree to a four-stage release of prisoners, of which the second stage is expected to be undertaken Tuesday night.
SKEPTICAL ABOUT SERIOUSNESS OF TALKS
However, some observers speculate over how serious the talks really are and whether or not it’s possible that any deal reached will ever be implemented.
Professor Menachem Klein, of the Bar-Ilan University, said that while “the talks didn’t collapse,” he was skeptical about the level of seriousness of the meetings.
“There are rounds of talks, but the game is how to prevent the U.S. from blaming one side or the other for the collapse. No side wants to disappoint the U.S.,” he said.
Many of the more right-wing members of Netanyahu’s own party have stated that they will oppose any deal that leads to the creation of a Palestinian state. Among the Palestinians the rift between Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza doesn’t appear to be healing anytime soon.
There is also a serious lack of trust between Israeli and Palestinian leadership, observers here say.
Kerry wasn’t able to convince Netanyahu to impose a settlement freeze and instead Israel has announced that it will continue with its settlement construction even as the talks continue, much to the dismay of the Palestinians. And according to Klein, the continued settlement construction was likely one of main topics discussed when Netanyahu and Kerry held a seven-hour meeting in Rome last week.
“I assume Kerry got from Netanyahu the okay that he will go ahead with the prisoners release and Netanyahu notified Kerry where exactly he intends to expand settlements,” Klein said, adding that these kinds of moves were all part of the “game of avoiding blame.”
Klein argued that while secrecy may help move the talks forward it doesn’t guarantee a serious advancement in the talks “because if and when negotiations go ahead, the public must be prepared. And the moment both the Israeli and Palestinian public have very low expectations. The mistrust rules over the confidence and hearts and minds of the two people.”
“In order to achieve public support for the deal which will include concessions the two leaders and the U.S. must prepare public opinion and create a positive public atmosphere. So they can’t conclude everything behind closed doors and then all of a sudden tell the people; here is the deal, we have signed it and you must agree,” HE said.
And until there are any public remarks by either side on the state of the negotiations, it will remain difficult to tell the actual progress being made, but the fact that the two sides are talking is a step forward after almost three years of no negotiations at all, he said.