Under pressure to restart talks with Mahmoud Abbas’ Palestinian Authority, Israel has diverged from its refusal to accede to Palestinian preconditions and agreed to free 104 Palestinian terrorists from its jails. It’s a mistake. Israel should withstand the pressure and say no.
Why? Because it makes a mockery of justice — and inflicts unimaginable pain on families of the victims — as multiple murderers walk free. The move also boosts the standing of terrorist groups, encourages the kidnapping of Israelis for the purpose of extorting the release of further terrorists, demoralizes Israeli counterterrorism personnel and erodes Israeli deterrence to the point when the most bloodthirsty murderers know they are likely to be freed early. Above all, such releases result in the subsequent murder of additional Israelis by freed terrorists.
In short, we’ve been here before and the results have been unarguably tragic. The Almagor Terrorist Victims Association disclosed in April 2007 that 177 Israelis killed in terror attacks in the previous five years had been killed by terrorists who had been previously freed from Israeli jails. Former Mossad chief Meir Dagan has observed that the terrorists released in the 2004 Elhanan Tenenbaum prisoner exchange deal caused the death of 231 Israelis.
In the past, Israel at least agonized over whether to free those with “blood on their hands” and demanded the return of living Israelis, however lopsided the exchange. In July 2008, however, Israel agreed to release to Hezbollah a gruesome murderer, Samir Kuntar, and four others prisoners in return for the corpses of two kidnapped Israelis. In August 2008, Israel freed 198 jailed terrorists, including two with blood on their hands and 149 others guilty of attempted murder, as a “confidence-building measure.”
In October 2009, Israel freed 20 Palestinian terrorists — not for a life or a corpse, but for a video of a kidnapped Israeli. And in October 2011, Israel freed 1,027 Palestinian prisoners, including hundreds of convicted terrorists, in exchange for the kidnapped Israeli serviceman, Gilad Shalit.
This time around, Israelis cannot even take refuge in the consolation that they freed a loved one, retrieved a corpse or even obtained a video. They cannot even say that they exacted any concession from the Palestinian Authority. To the contrary, Mahmoud Abbas recently reiterated that he will not permit “the presence of a single Israeli — civilian or soldier — on our lands.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is not unaware of the danger. To the contrary, he once warned against the very thing he now intends to do. With this release, he also dishonors his pledge to withstand Palestinian preconditions.
U.S. pressure alone must explain Netanyahu’s decision, not some valuable quid pro quo. How else to account for a decision opposed by 85 percent of the Israeli public and the Shin Bet head, Yoram Cohen? The Obama administration has not expressed a new determination to see Iran cross no red lines in its march to a nuclear weapon. Obama has not altered his earlier negotiating baseline of an Israeli return to the 1949 armistice lines.
Those trying to make sense of the decision speak of Israel keeping the United States on side in dealing with Iran — which suggests that Israel has lacked this all along. The idea that the United States needs some Israeli concession to unify its Arab allies against the Iranian nuclear threat is absurd, given the imploring of Arab leaders for Washington to deal with the problem. The Obama administration has made Israel no secret promise of action on Iran, military or otherwise — top Israeli officials have privately told us as much.
Israel will rue this decision. The United States would never release Guantanamo detainees because the Taliban demands it in return for talks. Why should Israel? It is still not too late for Jerusalem to refuse to release the terrorists — and say why.
Morton A. Klein is national president of the Zionist Organization of America. Daniel Mandel is director of its Center for Middle East Policy.