The Israeli government is nervous. Its July 28 decision to release Palestinian prisoners wasn’t an easy one to make. The Supreme Court also had its reservations (or at least pretended to) before rejecting, quite predictably, a petition by the victims’ families opposing the release.
“We thought about the murderers, who will be released to a hero’s welcome at a special session of the Palestinian Assembly, as if they had committed some act of grave national importance by slaughtering innocents who had done nothing to harm them. Woe to the ears that hear of such a thing,” wrote Justice Elyakim Rubinstein in his decision. But anyone who bothered to listen to the joyous cheers late that night when the prisoners were released would learn that it sounded quite sweet to the Palestinian ear. This may be easy to understand when considering the prisoners’ families, especially those relatives who are particularly close to them. It is much harder to understand the reaction of the Palestinian public and government.
Apparently, the Palestinian Authority had no reservations. It demanded a "win” before it would return to the negotiating table. The victory it managed to get out of the Israelis and that it's bragging about in front of crowds, the victory it's presenting as “correcting a historic injustice,” is the release of murderers from prison — murderers who set out to slaughter innocent civilians, who stabbed their employers, who desecrated a corpse, who took the life of a tourist sitting in a restaurant. They are the heroes.
The Israeli government also felt the need to present a “victory” that would ease the harshness of these murderers' release, a victory that would somehow reassure the right-wing voters grumbling about excessive concessions by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and send the Europeans a message of determination. It decided to release tenders to construct 1,200 new housing units in Jerusalem and the West Bank area of Judea and Samaria. Of course, it is certainly possible to argue that this move was necessary, and if it does in fact serve Israeli policy. Minister of Finance Yair Lapid called the decision “sticks inserted between the spokes of the peace talks’ wheels.” I tend to think that he’s right. It would have been better to hold back a bit.
Nevertheless, it is impossible to ignore the symbolic significance of what happened over the last few days. It is impossible not to notice the familiar pattern that repeats itself in Israel’s relationship with its neighbors. While the Palestinians take pride in the release of murderers, the Israeli government is taking pride in its decision to build houses. This was once called an “appropriate Zionist response,” in all seriousness. Today, that expression is reserved for parodies of days long past. Nevertheless — although it may not be good form to mention it, and certainly not in the civilized company of people who want peace — this serves as the backdrop for the second round of Palestinian-Israeli talks, which start today, Aug. 14. In fact, it is the backdrop for the Arab-Israeli conflict ever since it began: One side celebrates the murderers, while the other celebrates the builders.
The choice to release these murderers was a Palestinian one. They could have insisted on some constructive step instead. They could have insisted on the expansion of one of their towns, on the paving of a new road, on steps that express their desire for sovereignty over land, steps that express their desire to build for themselves, instead of focusing on the desire to destroy. They could have demanded a renovated sewer system or the creation of some nice park to serve the public. But the Palestinians didn't hesitate. They preferred a gesture that provided them with the momentary satisfaction of hurting their enemy and seeing his anguish over some positive act that made sense and that would have served some real purpose. They preferred to give their constituents the questionable gift of the man with the knife and the man with the pickaxe. They gave them the man that murdered Attorney Ian Feinberg, who came to Gaza to find ways to help the Palestinian population, as Shlomi Eldar described in his article .
“I’ll be damned if I understand the logic behind the list of prisoners that Israel is releasing,” Eldar wrote, though it was not exactly clear who he was addressing. Was it Israel, for proposing these prisoners' release? Was it the Palestinian Authority, for requesting them? He should have begun his piece differently: There is nothing surprising about the lack of any logic behind the list of prisoners that Israel is releasing. There is nothing surprising in the way this disgusting list was put together in response to a disgusting demand. Upsetting? Certainly. Frustrating? Sometimes. Infuriating? Of course. But surprising? There is no surprise here at all.
Nor was there any surprise in the anticipated Israeli response, which was, in fact, a bit too mechanical. Professor Shlomo Avineri once commented, and rightfully so, that the “Zionist response” needn’t necessarily be one of defiance, and that the best Zionist and Israeli policy is the one with the "good sense to realize that the key to achieving its objectives lies in enlisting international support for that policy.” The Netanyahu government isn’t particularly successful in enlisting international support, and the announcement of another building program will not necessarily improve its chances of success in the future. But the Netanyahu government is continuing the legacy of its predecessors, which was set by the leadership of the Jewish community (the Yishuv) even before the establishment of the State of Israel. It has chosen to respond to the Palestinian victory by building. It may not be the appropriate Zionist response, but it is the accepted Zionist cure-all. Sometimes it doesn’t actually help. Sometimes it is a bitter pill to swallow. And yet, it is still much better than the prescription that the doctors from the nearby hospital wrote.
Shmuel Rosner is a Tel Aviv-based columnist, editor and think-tank fellow. He is the senior political editor for the Jewish Journal and writes the daily blog "Rosner's Domain." He writes weekly for The International Herald Tribune and The New York Times. Rosner is a fellow at The Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI) and the chief nonfiction editor for Israel’s largest publishing house, Kinneret-Zmora-Dvir. On Twitter: @rosnersdomain