(CNSNews.com) – As Secretary of State John Kerry announced Tuesday a goal of achieving a “final status agreement” between Israelis and Palestinians within nine months, secrecy surrounds what concession or goodwill gesture – if any – Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas made to get the process underway.
The P.A. only agreed to send negotiators to Washington to launch the peace effort after Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on Sunday shepherded through a deeply-divided cabinet an agreement to release 104 long-serving Palestinian prisoners, reportedly including terrorists responsible for the deaths of scores of Israelis.
It was the only concession on either side made public ahead of the talks: If there was a reciprocal gesture from the P.A. it remains a mystery, and if there was not, then still unanswered is the question of why Netanyahu agreed to resume talks without one, while at the same time risking significant public anger at home over freeing the prisoners.
Speaking alongside Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and P.A. negotiator Saeb Erekat, Kerry reiterated that the three parties will keep the contents of the negotiations secret, and that Israel and the P.A. have agreed that he alone is authorized to speak publicly on the talks.
The administration later Tuesday did put up two senior officials, one from the White House and one from the State Department, for a background briefing, but they were careful not to specify what the two sides have privately committed to – beyond saying that they had “agreed to take affirmative steps to create a positive atmosphere for negotiations.”
The State Department official said Kerry praised Netanyahu’s decision to have “a tough, tough fight” with his cabinet over the prisoner release, a step that had taken “some courage and some leadership.”
“By the same token, President Abbas made a very difficult decision,” the official continued, although without elaborating on the nature of the “very difficult decision.”
“I think both of them experienced some political heat, if you will, as a result of all of this,” the official added.
The only public heat Abbas has faced since the announcement of the talks has come in the form of protests in towns including Ramallah and Nablus by members of hardline PLO factions such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Hamas, the Islamist group that controls Gaza, also rejects negotiations.
(Those protesting Abbas’ return to talks say he walked away from a precondition of an Israeli suspension of settlement activity in the disputed territories. But making a settlement freeze a precondition for a return to talks was a violation of the Oslo accords – the basis for peace negotiations over the past two decades – so dropping it does not constitute a concession to Israel to match the prisoner release decision.)
Far from risking massive public anger Abbas is being praised at home for securing the prisoner release deal. A recent Gallup poll found that for Palestinians the prisoner release issue is a more important priority as a precondition for restarting talks than any other – including a settlement freeze or an agreement that the pre-1967 borders should be the basis for future borders between Israel and a Palestinian state.
By contrast, the prisoner release agreement was a political risk for Netanyahu. An Israel Hayom survey last week found that 84 percent of Israeli Jews oppose the release of prisoners who had committed deadly attacks, while just 9.4 percent favored the move as a means to facilitate peace talks.
Killers celebrated as heroes
For Israelis, past releases have meant jarring scenes of freed killers being hailed as heroes by P.A. leaders, while the fact that some of the released convicts have returned to terrorism has been additionally troubling.
Previous negotiated Palestinian prisoner releases have usually been in exchange for Israelis held hostage by terrorist groups in Lebanon or Gaza – in some cases in exchange for the return of the remains of slain Israeli soldiers.
The most recent such swap was the October 2011 exchange of more than 1,000 prisoners, including those responsible for deadly terror attacks, for the freedom of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who had been held by terrorists in Gaza since being kidnapped five years earlier.
Israeli media this week noted that of the prisoners released in return for Shalit’s freedom, more than 40 have been arrested for involvement in subsequent terrorism.
Israel has not named the 104 prisoners to be released under the current agreement, all convicted for crimes committed before the Oslo accords were signed, but the Palestinian Prisoners Society on Sunday released a list of those it says will be freed.
Israel’s Ha’aretz daily reported that the prisoners, in total, were responsible for the deaths of 55 civilians, 15 soldiers, one female tourist and dozens of Palestinians suspected of collaborating with Israel.
One of the men slated for release, Jumaa Adam, was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1989 for the murder of 27-year-old school teacher Rachel Weiss and her three sons, aged three, two and nine months old, burned to death after Adam and two others hurled firebombs at a bus driving through Jericho. A soldier who tried to rescue them, David Delarosa, died later of severe burns.
According to media reports from the time, then-Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin noted that an army vehicle had passed the scene seconds earlier but the attackers let it go by and chose to target the civilian bus instead.
Netanyahu in an open letter to the Israeli public at the weekend called the decision to release the prisoners “incredibly difficult” and said it hurt the families of terror victims, but that it was necessary to “ensure Israel’s essential national interests.”
“Prime ministers are required from time to time to make decisions against public opinion,” he said.
Veteran Israeli journalist Nahum Barnea noted in a Yediot Ahronot column that despite Netanyahu’s past insistence on reciprocity the prime minister’s letter contained not “a single word about what Israel is supposed to get in return” for the prisoner release.
“The Palestinians did not give anything this time, apart from willingness to hold talks about holding talks,” Barnea wrote. “It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to guess what Netanyahu would have said about it had someone else been prime minister.”
“The agreement to release 104 terrorists at such an early stage seems premature,” the Jerusalem Post said in an editorial. “Israel should not have to foot the bill for the failure of the Palestinian leadership to prepare its people for peace with the Jewish state.”