Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) – Israel released 198 Palestinian security prisoners on Monday, including two who murdered Israelis. The goodwill gesture to Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas came just hours before Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrived here to prod the peace process.
On her 24-hour visit, Rice will hold more talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders. She reportedly wants them to produce a document that could be presented to the United Nations General Assembly next month, but it appears that will not happen.
Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who is heading Israel’s negotiating team, reportedly plans to ask Rice to abandon the idea since it might hamper her attempt to gain control of the Kadima party’s leadership in September primaries, the Jerusalem Post reported over the weekend.
Livni told foreign reporters in Jerusalem last week that while both the Israelis and Palestinians are making every effort to reach an agreement before the end of the year, the international community shouldn’t pressure them to do so.
“The timeline is important, but what is more important is the content and the nature of the understanding we can reach with the Palestinians,” Livni said. She said anything less than a comprehensive agreement could lead to clashes, misunderstandings and violence.
Livni also invoked previous experience, noting that Israel faced violence following President Bill Clinton’s push for a peace agreement at Camp David in the summer of 2000, six months before Clinton’s term in office ended. Two month after the Camp David talks ended, the first Palestinian intifada broke out.
Livni said she represented both the Israelis and Palestinians in the view that a deal should not be rushed. “I think that when the Israelis and the Palestinians can agree on something, the international community should respect [it].”
Senior P.A. negotiator Saeb Erekat said that Livni was correct in what she said. Israel and the Palestinians agreed that they alone would make the necessary decisions to come to an agreement, Erekat said.
“We asked the Americans not [to put forth] bridging proposals, shortcuts [and] no partial agreements,” Erekat told CNSNews.com. When it comes to a final deal, both sides must agree on everything or there is no deal, he said.
The two sides reportedly are working on what the media has dubbed a “shelf agreement” – a deal that outlines solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but can be put on a shelf to be implemented at a later time.
Livni said the idea behind the “shelf agreement” is to reach an understanding for the establishment of a Palestinian State in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. But the P.A. must be able to control the Gaza Strip, where the militant Islamic group Hamas has ruled since it overthrew forces loyal to P.A. Chairman Mahmoud Abbas last year.
The region cannot afford a failed terror state, she said.
Some critics of the process say there is no way that Israel and the Palestinians can make peace now. Abbas is so weak that he lost control of the Gaza Strip. And security experts say that if Israel leaves the West Bank, Hamas would take over there, too.
Israel itself is in a state of political turmoil as Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has promised to resign as soon as his Kadima party holds primary elections next month. If the new leader of Kadima cannot form a government, then the country will go to general elections, probably early next year.
Another critic, former Israeli Ambassador to Washington Zalman Shoval, said it is understood that there is “no chance” to reach an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal anytime soon.
The question is whether the two sides can produce some document that can be regarded as an agreement in principle “in order to present this to the Bush administration as an achievement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” Shoval said in a radio interview.
Such a deal would be harmful to Israel, he said. Although it would not have any legal value here because it probably would not gain Knesset approval, it could be used by Israel’s adversaries to pressure Israel in the future, he added.
In the meantime, Olmert has given Abbas a so-called “goodwill gesture” in releasing Palestinian prisoners who are members of factions that support Abbas.
“Through this latest confidence-building measure…Israel seeks to intensify its continued dialogue with partners who are both committed to diplomacy and opposed to terrorism,” Olmert’s office said in a statement.
It also underscored Israel’s willingness to make “painful concessions for the sake of advancing peace negotiations,” it said.
The prisoner release has come under particularly heavy criticism this time since the Israeli government broke with its own policy of not releasing prisoners “with blood on their hands.”
Included in the release were the longest-held Palestinian prisoner, Said al-Atba, who was serving a life sentence for his part in a 1977 terror attack in which an Israeli was killed; and Muhammad Abu Ali, who was jailed for murdering an Israeli.
Israel has some 11,000 Palestinian security prisoners in its prison system.