Overcast 56° Good Morning
Overcast 56° Good Morning

Socolof: Benjamin Netanyahu signals he's serious about Mideast peace

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem. (July 28, 2013) Photo Credit: Getty Images

Most of the commentary about the newly revived Israeli-Palestinian peace talks focuses on their chances for success. Largely overlooked is the new insight into the thinking of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Evidently, he and his government really want a two-state peace deal, and are willing to sacrifice much to achieve it.

Netanyahu has been derided for years as a man who would never agree to cede any West Bank land for the creation of a Palestinian state. Even while Secretary of State John Kerry was shuttling between Jerusalem and Ramallah in recent months to arrange the resumption of talks, some contended that Netanyahu was just going through the motions to placate the Americans, and had no intention of budging on Israeli control of the West Bank.

And yet the opening negotiating session began in Washington last Tuesday with only one precondition made public: Israel agreed to free 104 jailed Palestinians.

These are no ordinary prisoners; all have been in jail for at least 20 years for terrorist attacks. They are to be released in groups as the negotiations proceed. Significantly, no reciprocal Palestinian concession has been announced. The contents of separate U.S. letters to Israel and the Palestinian Authority remain, for the time being, a deep secret.

While Israel has released large numbers of Palestinians on other occasions, it was always for a tangible return -- whether the freedom of long-term captives such as Gilad Shalit in 2011, or to recover the bodies of Israeli soldiers in years past. Each release was painful, not only for the Israeli prime minister, but for the nation. It's hard to fathom a similar concession by the United States to free convicted murderers in exchange for a highly uncertain outcome dependent on further negotiations.

Now -- for the first time -- Palestinians with blood on their hands are set to be freed simply as an inducement to talk peace. In other words, Israel is unilaterally giving up cards it holds, letting convicted criminals walk free, simply to get the Palestinian Authority to return to the table that President Mahmoud Abbas abandoned three years ago.

And if the experience of the previous prisoner releases is any guide, some will spill Israeli blood again.

This has understandably triggered a wave of criticism in Israel. Ha'aretz reports that the prisoners about to go free are collectively guilty of murdering 55 Israeli civilians, 15 soldiers, a French tourist and "dozens of Palestinians suspected of collaborating with Israel."

Public opinion polls show a large majority of Israelis opposed to the prisoner release. Opposition leaders decry the decision as creating a dangerous precedent that hurts Israel's negotiating posture. Netanyahu's cabinet was itself divided over the deal. It passed by 13 to 7, with two abstentions. Two of the nay votes and both abstainers are members of the prime minister's Likud party.

Why did the usually cautious Netanyahu and the majority of his cabinet do something so deeply unpopular with no assurance that the negotiations will achieve peace? Since there was no immediate political upside, the only plausible answer was suggested by Science Minister Yaakov Peri, a former head of the Shin Bet security service.

He told the Times of Israel, "As one who was responsible for the pursuit and capture of many of these murderers, this is a . . . heartbreaking and tragic decision. But not returning to the negotiating table would be even more serious."

Netanyahu wants to go down in history as the man who brought peace to Israel.

Whether these peace talks will succeed or go the way of the others, hitting insurmountable obstacles, remains to be seen. For now, the world should at least give Netanyahu credit for trying again, and appreciate the painful sacrifices made and the additional ones that will be offered in the coming months.

Robert Socolof is director of the American Jewish Committee, Long Island Region.