“The [Israeli] government decided to release terrorists and I ask, why? In return for what? What have we received? This crossing of a line, of releasing murderers, is dangerous in the struggle against terror. . . . [This] is unacceptable and reflects weakness and a loss of direction.”
Truer words were never spoken, even if they were spoken by Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the opposition five years ago when the Kadima government released 200 terrorists as a “gesture” to Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas. A Likud government, Netanyahu promised, would provide “an aggressive and uncompromising policy toward terror.” These were empty words and hollow assurances. The Netanyahu government has demonstrated the allure of capitulation with its decision to release 104 Palestinian terrorists, most of whom were convicted of brutal and deadly attacks against Israeli civilians before the Oslo Accords were signed twenty years ago.
Nothing does more to abet terrorism than the release of terrorists for their gruesome crimes. In 1985 Israel released 1,150 prisoners for 3 captured Israelis. Fifteen years later it released 450 prisoners for 3 Israeli bodies and a kidnapped Israeli. In 2008 it released 5 Arab prisoners (including Samir al-Kuntar, convicted for the hideous murder of a father in front of his four-year-old daughter, whose skull Kuntar then crushed against a rock) for two Israeli bodies. Two years ago, 1,027 Palestinian prisoners were released for Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit. None of these releases led to peace; only to more terrorism.
Netanyahu has his own history of surrender under diplomatic pressure, most recently with his agreement to a ten-month freeze on settlement construction for the resumption of peace negotiations that never resumed. In an open letter to the public on Saturday, he conceded that the prisoner release “clashed with the principle of justice” – but was nonetheless necessary to “ensure Israel’s essential national interests.” That is proving to be a hard sell to enraged family members of terrorist victims, who have launched protest rallies outside the prime minister’s office in Jerusalem. The Almagor terror victims’ organization denounced Netanyahu’s “capitulation to terrorism” and to demands from the international community for concessions prior to the start of negotiations. The nephew of a murdered soldier warned that “the state that even thinks about letting them go only advances terror.” Even loyal Netanyahu followers described his decision as a “betrayal” that constituted “a present to terrorists.”
There were immediate and sharp warnings from government officials that Netanyahu’s capitulation to American demands would be detrimental to Israel. Shin Bet head Yoram Cohen indicated that the likelihood that released prisoners would return to terrorism is, based on past experience, “relatively large.” Their release would diminish security “both in the immediate threat to the public, and because of the erosion in deterrence.”
Economics Minister Naftali Bennett warned: “We are going down a slippery slope”: “First we released a terrorist in exchange for a live soldier, then 100 terrorists for a live soldier, followed by terrorists in exchange for a dead soldier, and now 100 terrorists for a ‘process'” that is no likelier to lead to peace than its previous iterations. To Likud member Yariv Levin, “The decision represents a new record in the theater of the absurd in which Israel abandons its security while gaining nothing in return.” Minister Uri Orbach compared the so-called peace process to the ancient pagan god Moloch “that has to be fed constantly . . . yet is never sated.”
By a 13-7 vote, Netanyahu’s Cabinet approved his policy of capitulation. Even those who supported the prime minister, like former Shin Bet head Yaakov Peri, conceded that “this is a . . . heartbreaking and tragic decision.” But the chimera of “peace” seems to drive Israelis to such decisions, even knowing as they do that the reward for releasing terrorists is most likely not to be peace but more terrorism. So it has always been.
The irony of American pressure on Israel to release prisoners while convicted spy Jonathan Pollard has been imprisoned longer than most Palestinian terrorists was duly noted. Knesset member Nissan Slomiansky, who called the prisoner release plan an “unprecedented disgrace,” criticized the double standard: “One would have expected that the United States, which is fighting terror, would have avoided pressing Israel to release murderers, while it has refused for years to release one Israeli citizen who is not a terrorist and does not constitute a security threat.”
Albert Einstein famously described insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Then again, he never lived in Israel.
Jerold S. Auerbach is professor emeritus of history at Wellesley College.