Almost five years ago the foreign ministry, then under the aegis of Tzipi Livni, published the following official press release:
On 25 August 2008, Israel released 198 convicted Palestinian terrorists. Israel undertook this risky measure in the hope of promoting dialogue with the pragmatic Palestinians who reject terrorism and are engaged in diplomacy with Israel.
It is never easy for Israel to decide on the early release of convicted Palestinian terrorists. The issue is one fraught with emotional overtones, for Israelis in general and the families of terrorism victims in particular.
In these instances, Israel’s decision-makers have been faced with both political and moral dilemmas. All the while, they remain fully cognizant of the security risks posed to the Israeli public by such measures.
Yet Israel decided on 17 August 2008 to unilaterally initiate the release of approximately 200 Palestinian prisoners, a decision that was realized the next week, with the 25 August release of 198 convicted terrorists. Among them were Palestinians serving long-term sentences for the murder of Israeli civilians; their release came at the personal request of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Israel undertook this dramatic step in the hope of promoting dialogue with those pragmatic Palestinians who are both engaged in diplomacy with Israel (most specifically, the Annapolis process) and opposed to terrorism.
Palestinians from many factions have often expressed their interest in seeing prisoners released. The 198 prisoners came from the ranks of those factions that support the leadership of PA President Abbas.
Israel’s large-scale release of prisoners underscores its willingness to take confidence-building measures - and even make painful concessions - during those periods when the Palestinians are interested in maintaining an atmosphere of dialogue and negotiations.
Israel hopes that the Palestinians and its other neighbors will recognize that commitment to the peaceful resolution of disputes can indeed produce tangible results. As Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni noted at the 17 August Cabinet meeting, “The release of prisoners to pragmatic elements as part of a process of negotiation conveys the message that those who negotiate with Israel can gain through dialogue.”
Three crucial notes must be interjected here:
1. This group of 198 released terrorists wasn’t the first. In August 2007, 255 were released to entice Abbas to at all palaver along with a further 87 in October 2007. In mid-December 2008 224 more terrorists were liberated. In all, some 1000 terrorists were let go to grease Abbas’s palms during 2007-8.
2. Many of the liberated terror-mongers set loose in order to foster confidence and goodwill quickly returned to their old murderous ways.
3. The Annapolis process – formally launched on November 27, 2007 – was the biggest and costliest Israeli diplomatic flop to date. It even eclipsed Ehud Barak’s colossal failures at Camp David and Taba because Premier Ehud Olmert and Livni offered even more than Barak’s already egregious offers. Olmert and Livni were ready to cede just about everything. Their risky generosity, though, changed nothing. They were rebuffed as gruffly as was Barak.
Abbas plainly cannot do a deal, no more than his way more powerful predecessor Yasser Arafat could. Abbas won’t agree to end the dispute, relinquish the so-called right to inundate the Jewish state with millions of hostile Arabs or at all recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state in the Mideast. Why? Because the object of Ramallah’s honchos was never to establish a Palestinian state but to destroy the Jewish state. All else is a ploy to debilitate Israel.
But it’s not like Barak and Olmert cleverly demonstrated this truth to the watching world. They swayed no minds but they did create a new square-one for future haggling. Abbas already demands that all new talks begin from what Barak and Olmert were ready to surrender. That becomes a given, an already made concession that cannot be retracted, even if nothing was signed or traded in return.
Olmert’s/Livni’s largess was as futile as the release of a thousand convicted killers for no other reason than to bolster Abbas in a self-deceptive bid to assemble a DIY peace-partner.
When all this took place, Binyamin Netanyahu, who then headed the opposition, was outspokenly censorious of the gratuitous giveaways to Abbas. Now Prime Minister Netanyahu too makes superfluous payments Abbas – albeit on a smaller scale.
There are those among us who have already decided that Netanyahu is in the midst of performing an Ariel Sharon-style sleight-of-hand.
The accusers claim that another craven head of government has seen fit – for whatever quasi-cogent consideration – to cheat his voters. Although elected on a hawkish ticket, the suspected charlatan in fact implements the most dovish agenda.
Superficially there’s cause for acute misgivings. After all, Netanyahu is faced with a second-term Obama administration that presumably finds nothing more pressing in world affairs than to twist the arms of the only stable democracy in the volatile and despotic Mideast.
Then, adding angst to acute distress, there’s endemically Israel-bashing Europe which relishes any new pretexts to instigate boycotts against the Jewish state.
To boot, Netanyahu heads a precarious coalition whose members are continually at cross-purposes with each other on an array of pesky issues, something which makes the PM particularly susceptible to all manner of ultimatums from within.
Undeniably, Netanyahu is the poker player who was dealt a particularly atrocious hand, yet tries his darndest to stay in the game and pretend that that he can actually avoid losing. Pretense in itself is of course a disincentive to learning anything from the past. What if he’s not actually throwing more good money after the bad? Why should he be branded intransigent with all the disadvantages that piles up?
The poker face Netanyahu seeks to put on is known in political terminology as pragmatism. He plays along in the hope that something will somehow improve his odds along the way. He needs time. His luck may yet change.
Let’s be charitable. Netanyahu nowhere contemplates the betrayals that Sharon began springing on his unwary supporters a decade ago. Netanyahu’s heart may be in the right place, but he is too frightened to refuse to participate in a crooked game. Pragmatically, he even deposits a downpayment for the privilege of being fleeced.
Such pragmatism is sure to land us into more trouble than it would extricate us from. The road to disaster is paved with pragmatic good intentions.
Pragmatism is akin to focusing on specific potholes in our national path rather than sometimes lifting our eyes from the ground to scan the horizon, survey the sweep of the land and behold the full track ahead. We bog ourselves down with details and neglect the whole. We quibble about incidentals and forget the basics.
Unlike visionary against-the-odds Zionists of yesteryear, pragmatists reject dreams, absolutes and truths. Everything is judged by the assumed practical outcome. The more facile a solution, the better – even if only for the foreseeable short-haul.
Thus if the world, for a host of ulterior motives, contends that Israel is the villain and the Arabs are its downtrodden victims, we don’t quarrel with this premise. We throw the howling hostile hounds a few bones to mollify them.
If the world, for cynical self-serving reasons, equates us with South Africa’s old apartheid regime and the Arabs with the oppressed indigenous masses, we don’t challenge this odious distortion. We try to improve our image.
If the world decides we’re foreign colonists who forcefully usurped the land of peaceful natives, we remove several settler outposts rather than refute the brazen fabrications and stress our right to our only homeland.
If the world falsely depicts us as the many and the mighty and the Arabs as the few and defenseless, we shy from military solutions to violent conflicts. If the world calls us aggressors, we apologize.
We convince ourselves that we thereby stave off immediate disaster, that we outsmart all other poker players. But in fact we only impress ourselves, while at the same time honing our image overseas as tyrannical Goliaths, diehard apartheid adherents, colonialist interlopers and/or militarist ogres.
It’s staggering stupidity to appear to own up, even if indirectly, to the rampant slander that has today replaced the medieval calumny of deicide.
By repeatedly conceding the basic assumptions against us, we aggravate our own distress and inevitably succumb to the inimical international axiom that we’re in the wrong and that those who would annihilate us are desperate insurgents against injustice.
Any means to which they resort are thereby legitimized and terrorism against Israel isn’t entirely cast out of moral bounds. Our accommodating pragmatism effectively removes Israelis, even Jews, from what the world’s anti-terror warriors define as terrorism. Insidiously, terrorism becomes the indiscriminate targeting of non-Jews.
We’d therefore do better to go back to basics, proclaim loud and clear that we are in our historical homeland by right; that we were attacked; that the Arabs only conjured Palestinian nationality in order to stake rival claims; that a Palestinian state never existed (i.e. we certainly didn’t conquer and subjugate it); that we didn’t drive out hapless refugees (who themselves launched the war); that they caused their own downfall by plotting genocide and ethnic cleansing against us; that our only sin is surviving. We can even remind the world of the Nazi legacy of “Palestinian hero” Haj Amin al-Husseini.
Admittedly, we may not convince anyone. The cards are stacked against us. But we’ve nothing to lose by rediscovering our defiant spirit and lost Zionist ideals. Excessive pragmatism – the sacrifice of national honor for temporary gain – will lose us everything, from our own sense of justice to the souls of our youngsters.
It’s time to admit that Israelis are pathetically bad at poker, that we haven’t got the prerequisite steely nerves, that our anxious faces give us away. True, it’s hard to quit when losing, but that’s no reason to keep gambling with the very lives of this state’s citizens today and the survival of future generations.
Poker, or what Obama/Kerry market as negotiations, can be a form of psychological warfare, a fact which behooves Netanyahu to remember that old casino adage: If you’re playing poker and look around the table to see who the sucker is, it’s doubtless you.