This prisoner exchange is different: Palestinians want an Israeli released


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.


Abir Sultan

JERUSALEM — What do prisoners in Israeli and American jails have to do with the Middle Eastern peace process?

Quite a lot, actually.

About 4,700 Palestinians are held in Israeli jails for what Israel refers to as "security crimes," or in other words: nationalistic terror, which the Palestinians call "resistance."

The convictions range from stone-throwing to multiple counts of premeditated murder, in the case of terror masterminds.

For the Palestinian government, the release of these prisoners, who have become popular heroes as symbols of the nationalistic struggle, is a tangible achievement that can be used as an argument in favor of the peace process.

Since last summer, when US Secretary of State John Kerry initiated his push toward a final-status solution for the intractable conflict, Israel has released 78 prisoners in three groups under the rubric of "confidence-building measures."

The prisoners were all detained prior to the start of the Olso peace process, in 1993.

Each release of prisoners is greeted in Palestinian territories with jubilation and public celebration of the deeds that landed the prisoners in jail — while the Israeli family members of those killed, on the other hand, have been furious.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition partners on the right have reacted to the past three releases with threats to topple the government by resigning or leaving the coalition.

In the hope of placating the right, Israel has met each prisoner release in this series with an announcement of building plans for new settlements in the occupied territories.

Invariably, the settlement announcements provoke Palestinian accusations that Israel is not acting in good faith, and, from the United States, chastening statements that such measures are "unhelpful." 

Behind the scenes, both US President Barack Obama and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas are aware of Netanyahu's precarious perch within Israeli politics.

Another 26 prisoners are scheduled to be released in two days, and for the first time in the history of these negotiations, they include Israeli citizens.

Israeli citizens? Yes. A few dozen Israeli Arabs have been convicted of nationalistic crimes against the state. Several Israeli ministers have threatened to resign if any Israeli national is released, claiming that no sovereign nation can be coerced into releasing its own citizens who have been convicted of mass murder.

For the Palestinian Authority, achieving the release of freedom fighters who are Israelis makes the point that the Palestinian government is fighting for the cause of Palestinian liberation in the broadest possible way.

But if Netanyahu is to release Israeli citizens — and not just West Bank or Gaza Palestinians — he will have to shore up his own position with the right wing with something more significant than just another announcement of new settlement building plans.

Enter Jonathan Pollard, stage right. 

Who is Pollard? He is an American Jew who was working as a civilian CIA analyst in Washington, DC, when he was caught passing an Israeli contact classified documents in 1987. He pled guilty, and was sentenced to life.

Israel has been clamoring for his release since it began to shed the embarrassment of having been caught spying on its own closest ally, about 20 years ago, when such acts were not as commonplace as they are today.

Pollard's release, about 18 months before he will be eligible for parole, is the single glittering carrot the United States can offer Netanyahu to buttress him before the barrage of domestic sticks that will come his way if the next prisoner release in fact takes place. (Right now, it's not looking likely.)

The US really wants this prisoner release to happen: If it doesn’t, Abbas is threatening to abandon the peace process altogether. The US has invested a huge amount of resources and prestige in restarting the peace talks, and their failure would be a major setback at a time ​Obama and Kerry are already struggling to shore up the credibility of their foreign policy strategy.

Yesterday, Israel Army Radio reported that Washington had, in fact, offered to release Pollard. A few hours later, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said no such offer was on the table "currently." 

A non-denial denial if ever there was one.

Following up on that news, reports emerged early Friday that Israel was rejecting the fourth prisoner release.

Stay tuned.