I am quoted in this article in today’s New York Times. “The thing that bothers me most is the connection that’s been created between prisoner release and settlement construction,” said David M. Weinberg of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University. “It’s tainted with the whiff of being some sort of perfume meant to cover up the stink of the terrorist release, so that undermines whatever sense of real positive Zionist direction those on the right would theoretically feel from building in the territories.”
Israel’s Pairing Prisoner Release and Settlements Angers Many
By Jodi Rudoren and Isabel Kershner, The New York Times, December 31, 2013
JERUSALEM — As Israel released a group of 26 long-serving Palestinian prisoners early Tuesday, with another announcement of new construction in West Bank settlements expected soon, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faced sharp criticism from all corners, including conservative members of his own coalition.
Palestinian leaders threatened that any new settlement activity could lead them to seek membership and sue Israel in the International Criminal Court, a move they had promised not to take during peace talks that started this summer. European diplomats warned the Israelis in a series of high-level meetings over the past week against pairing the prisoner release with a construction announcement, as was done twice before. Even the Israeli right-wing forces that Mr. Netanyahu aimed to appease with the settlement initiative distanced themselves from the plan, denouncing any linkage between prisoners and construction as unfortunate or even immoral.
“He is wrong because he tries to please all sides; the result is nobody is happy with his steps,” said Eitan Haber, a veteran Israeli commentator, invoking a Hebrew idiom about how a bridegroom cannot dance at two weddings. Mr. Haber, who was a close adviser to former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, added, “If you are a true leader, a real leader, you must choose your way, and go and try to implement your ideas.”
Israeli news media reported that plans for 1,400 new housing units, including 600 in East Jerusalem, would be unveiled this week, as Secretary of State John Kerry is scheduled to make his 10th visit to the region to push for a peace agreement. Mr. Netanyahu, who agreed to release a total of 104 Palestinian prisoners over nine months of negotiations rather than freeze settlement construction, said Monday that “the protection of settlement in the land of Israel” is one of the nation’s “vital interests.”
“Leadership is judged by its ability to take hard decisions,” the prime minister told lawmakers with his Likud faction. “The state of Israel, I believe, has a strategic interest in the existence of diplomatic negotiations whose goal is to achieve an agreement that will end the conflict.”
The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, greeted 18 of the prisoners with hugs and kisses at 2:40 a.m. Tuesday outside his headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah, where a crowd of thousands had waited as long as 12 hours.
“Today is a joy for all of us,” Mr. Abbas said in a speech. “I promise you there will be no final agreement without the release of all prisoners.”
Before midnight, three prisoners had been taken to the Gaza Strip and five to East Jerusalem, where a group of Israelis carrying black umbrellas protested outside the home of one of the prisoners in the Old City. The men had served 19 to 28 years, most for murder.
“I can’t describe my feelings,” said Nawaman Al-Shalabi, who was convicted in the killing of three Arabs suspected of collaboration with Israel. “Twenty-two years, now I know what’s the meaning of freedom.”
Also among the released prisoners was Kamil Awad Ali Ahmad, who was convicted in the killing of an Israeli soldier as well as 15 Arabs suspected of collaborating with Israel, and Adnan Afandi, who was 21 when he stabbed and wounded two Israeli teenagers at a Jerusalem market in 1992.
Bella Freund, an Israeli mother of eight, recalled in an interview on Monday that she had used her body to protect Mr. Afandi from a furious mob for 27 minutes until the police arrived that day.
“I delivered the terrorist alive to justice, and justice gave me a slap in the face,” she said.
The prisoner group also included, for the first time, at least five residents of East Jerusalem, which provoked particular outrage among Israelis. “These people will be neighbors of the families of the victims they murdered,” Ortal Tammam, whose uncle Moshe was killed at age 19 by Israeli Arabs in 1984, said in the Israeli daily Maariv.
Lizi Hameiri, 32, a volunteer for the Israeli victims group that has led protests against the releases, said Mr. Netanyahu’s repeated announcements of new settlement construction only “adds insult to injury.”
“Can a house compensate for the loss of a human life?” Ms. Hameiri asked. “It’s insane, infuriating and immoral.”
Israeli politicians who criticized the anticipated settlement announcement included Isaac Herzog, the head of the opposition Labor Party; Yaakov Peri, a centrist minister in Mr. Netanyahu’s cabinet; and Orit Struk, a right-wing member of the Jewish Home party who is herself a settler.
“The thing that bothers me most is the connection that’s been created between prisoner release and settlement construction,” said David M. Weinberg of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University. “It’s tainted with the whiff of being some sort of perfume meant to cover up the stink of the terrorist release, so that undermines whatever sense of real positive Zionist direction those on the right would theoretically feel from building in the territories.”
Shimon Shiffer, a columnist for the Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot, called the planned settlement announcement “a cheap and gratuitous gimmick” that would backfire by angering the Obama administration and European leaders. Further highlighting the complicated politics Mr. Netanyahu faces at home, a ministerial committee voted Sunday to push forward legislation annexing settlements in the Jordan Valley area of the West Bank. The move was immediately appealed, and Mr. Netanyahu is expected to freeze the legislation, but Mr. Abbas on Tuesday morning called it “a red line that shouldn’t be crossed.”
Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, had told Voice of Palestine radio on Monday that the Jordan Valley vote “finishes all that is called the peace process” and should prompt Mr. Abbas to immediately join the criminal court and other international organizations, something Israel and the United States vehemently oppose.