The media are aglow with reports that Israeli-Palestinian talks are resuming, thanks to the determined efforts of President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry. Palestinians did not want to return to talks, so the Obama administration forced Israel to make a terrible concession: the release of 104 long-term prisoners, including terrorists and murderers. Palestinians did not trade anything substantive in exchange.
The Israeli media reported some of the crimes for which the prisoners were serving time:
Samir Sarsawi from Ibtin is also up for release. He was jailed in 1988 for throwing a grenade in the middle of a Haifa street….The list also includes Mohamed Dawd from Qalqilya who threw a Molotov cocktail at a car in 1987 killing Ofra and Tal Moses. Other prisoners include Jumaa Adem and Mahmoud Kharbish who hurled a firebomb at a bus in the Jordan Valley on the eve of the 1988 elections. The attack left five dead: Rachel Weiss and her three kids and soldier David Dolorosa who tried to save the four….Other Palestinians on the list murdered elderly Israelis. Jamal Muhsan from Jenin stabbed Shlomo Yehia, 76, in Kadima 22 years. Mahmoud Moamed murdered Israel Prize Laureate Menahem Stern in the Valley of the Cross in 1989.
The release has generated outrage in Israel, where past releases have led to new terror attacks. Critics accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of risking Israel’s security for Obama’s favor. Netanyahu had also faced pressure from his coalition partners to show greater enthusiasm for peace talks after a narrow win in January’s parliamentary elections. But Israeli analysts agreed that the main pressure had come from Obama.
Obama’s main bargaining chip was support for Israel at the United Nations and other international forums, where Palestinians have continued to press for recognition and anti-Israel boycotts. As Ha’aretz diplomatic correspondent Barak Ravid noted, Netanyahu’s ministers “finally comprehended that the impasse in talks threatens the country’s international legitimacy and its ability to thwart moves in the United Nations.”
With Obama nominating Samantha Power–a vociferous past critic of Israel–to the post of UN Ambassador, the risk of losing U.S. support at the United Nations is real. In addition, Obama was able to exert leverage over Israel because of Netanyahu’s strong desire for U.S. support for a potential pre-emptive strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities. The price for Obama’s support is Israel’s cooperation with U.S. plans for peace talks.
Nevertheless, prospects for a renewed Israeli-Palestinian peace process–which, at this stage, amount merely to “talks about talks”–are dim. The Palestinians themselves are mired in bitter internal conflict, and the maximums Israel is prepared to concede–most of the West Bank, a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem, return of some 1948 refugees to a new Palestinian state–are less than the minimum Palestinian demands.
Even more than for the Bush and Clinton administrations, which each poured diplomatic capital into a futile peace process, the Obama administration sees peace talks as central to the president’s agenda. Meanwhile, it has neglected pressing crises in Egypt and Syria, and the threat of a nuclear Iran. Still touting its record on terror, it has forced Israel to release over 100 deadly terrorists. The benefit of doing so remains uncertain.