The right move

The release scheduled for today of 198 Palestinian prisoners, many of them convicted of serious terrorist offenses–including two who were directly involved in the murder of Israelis prior to the Oslo accord of 1993–is a smart and courageous move by the otherwise highly problematic Olmert government. If it introduces some logic into criteria for future prisoner release by Israel it could have a positive strategic effect beyond its immediate confidence-building impact on Israeli-Palestinian relations.

A succession of Israeli governments has long been caught up in a terrorist-prisoner syndrome that combines draconian sentences as strong deterrent punishment with a refusal to use prisoner releases as confidence-building gestures toward the Palestinian public and government. One negative result has been the creation of incentives for Palestinian (and Hizballah) leaders to devote strenuous efforts to kidnap Israelis–to the extent of catalyzing wars–in the certain knowledge that prisoner exchanges are the only way Israelis will release terrorists whose freedom the Arab publics demand. Another has been Israeli neglect of an important tool for improving relations with Palestinians.

While Israeli leaders long ago grasped the negative aspects of their prisoner policy, they have always seemingly felt constrained both by public opinion and by the need to hold onto "quality" prisoners as bargaining cards for the current or next prisoner exchange. In both cases, public opinion has played a major role: a permanent and strong lobby is mounted by the families of victims of terrorism against releasing hard-core terrorists; and temporary lobbies are mounted by the families of kidnapped or captured Israelis to pressure for prisoner exchanges no matter what the costs.

Yet we now encounter a decision to release hard-core non-Hamas terrorist prisoners as a confidence-building gesture to the PLO/PA leadership. This takes place in the absence of a seemingly justifiable occasion such as some sort of peace agreement, but rather as a gesture designed to improve the likelihood of such an agreement and strengthen the moderate Palestinian camp against Hamas. The rationale is the huge importance the Palestinian public attaches to the freeing and repatriation of its prisoners–an issue no less important to Palestinians than to Israelis.

Two fairly obvious arguments can be mounted against this move: first, that this gesture erodes Israel’s anti-terrorism deterrent profile; and second, that no peace agreement appears likely or attainable. Both are weighty and worthy of discussion.

The first objection can be met by ensuring that hard-core terrorists and those with Israeli "blood on their hands" are released only after serving many years in prison. This will also ensure that a relatively small proportion of the released prisoners return to active terrorism. Here we must bear in mind that Israeli military and civilian courts tend to sentence Arab terrorists and their accomplices to periods of incarceration that often far exceed the sentences meted out to Israelis for similar "civilian" offenses, including vicious murders (there is no death penalty in Israel). Hence "early release" of terrorists can be justified as long as it ensures that they served a "deterrent" period of time in Israeli jails. Moreover, in terms of Israeli public opinion, release of Palestinian terrorists can and should be balanced by measured steps to release Israelis jailed for many years for murdering Arabs.

Another desirable Israeli approach in this regard would be to recognize that terrorist prisoners with "blood on their hands" are no less worthy of eventual release than their accomplices or the masterminds of terrorist cells who often receive lighter sentences simply because they themselves didn’t "pull the trigger", their weapon jammed, the explosives failed to detonate, etc. In other words, Israel’s criteria for determining who gets released are in bad need of a logical revision. In this regard, the Olmert government’s decision to release PLO-connected but not Hamas prisoners makes perfect sense. Israel has a peace process with the PLO–something that is inconceivable with Hamas.

The second objection–why encourage an unattainable peace–refers to deep-seated public doubts about the mandate and credibility of the current Israeli and Palestinian Authority governments alike. Here it would be helpful if both would indicate to their publics where the process currently stands, i.e., what hoped-for progress the prisoner release is designed to advance. That said, the obvious goal of weakening Hamas, confirmed by that movement’s pathetic objections to the release of 198 non-Hamas terrorists, may be justification enough.

It would also be worthwhile for the governments concerned, including the Bush administration, to consider focusing on less ambitious objectives than comprehensive peace that nevertheless justify prisoner releases. These might include interim objectives such as the removal of settlements and outposts in portions of the northern West Bank as Palestinian security forces demonstrate their capability to maintain security.

All things considered, and even bearing in mind the validity of these objections, the release of 198 Palestinian prisoners associated with the PLO and PA is an important step toward rationalizing Israel’s approach to releasing of terrorist prisoners: as a tool for peace rather than as a feature of warfare.