Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's decision to release Palestinian prisoners stems from strategic and security-related considerations. There is no doubt that the increase in the number of prisoners slated for release and the inclusion of Arab Israelis in the group constitutes a capitulation to American pressure and Palestinian obstinacy. This is why it is so hard to accept Netanyahu's decision.
But the opposition to such a move is not merely emotional. The decision to release murderers who are citizens of the State of Israel and allow them to return to their homes causes severe damage to Israeli sovereignty and the justice system the country is so proud of. The argument can be made that a precedent has already been set and that the murderers of Israeli civilians have been released in past prisoner exchange deals, but this time it is being done while surrendering to pressure applied by the Palestinian Authority, not by a terror organization, as was the case in the past.
The PA is becoming the representative body of the Arab Israelis – both legally and diplomatically. But a look at the overall picture, while considering all of the options rationally, leads to the conclusion that the prime minister, with the support of the defense minister, made the right decision, for two main reasons.
The first and most important reason has to do with the Iranian nuclear program. Over the next few months, apparently by next spring, Iran will have the capability to produce a nuclear weapon, on all its components, and will become a country on the brink of weapons capability. During this time Israel will be able to stop the Iranian nuclear program, should it receive support and legitimacy from the West, and mainly from the US.
The release of Palestinian prisoners is a reasonable price to pay for something that is so crucial for the State of Israel, at least according to Netanyahu's security doctrine.
The second reason is Israel's diplomatic isolation, which has intensified over the past few months and has become a real strategic threat to the State's economy and the morale of its citizens.
Israel's increased isolation is the result of the Palestinians' successful propaganda campaign in the UN's institutions, coupled with semi-violent unrest in the West Bank. A clear indication that this isolation is becoming an economic and diplomatic threat is the EU's recent decision regarding the settlements, and there are a number of other similar measures the Palestinians are ready to pursue. Some of these measures relate not only to the European arena, but even to far off Australia.
Protest outside PMO against release of prisoners (Photo: Gil Yohanan)
The opening of negotiations with the Palestinians is supposed to stop this process – mainly the Palestinian protest maneuvers in the UN – and give Israel some breathing space.
Israeli government officials who took part in the discussions on the release of Palestinian prisoners confirmed that Netanyahu's decision was based on these two assumptions. But it is safe to assume that the PM had another reason for his decision to release the prisoners: Preventing a violent third intifada in the territories.
Both the IDF and Shin Bet have detected a sharp rise over the past year and a half in the number of incidents involving the throwing of stones and firebombs in the West Bank. For now it appears that the PA is able to contain the violence, but the army and internal security service estimate that an intifada will erupt unless progress is made on the diplomatic front.
In this regard, it is important to note that revolts are taking place in all Arab countries, with varying levels of violence. The Palestinian Authority and Gaza are the exception, and Israel has an interest in preserving this situation, at least for another nine months – at which point the peace negotiations, as well as the release of prisoners, are expected to conclude.
Preventing or delaying an intifada in the territories will obviously help Israel focus on the Iranian threat.
Therefore, the decision regarding the Palestinian prisoners was difficult yet reasonable in light of all the strategic advantages it gives Israel. Plus, as I've mentioned, a precedent has been set. Israel has released terrorists on a number of occasions due to external pressure. At least this time around it is being done as a gesture to a man who publicly supports a non-violent struggle.