Tuesday, August 06, 2013

6-Aug-13: Scale of Israeli public's rejection of terrorist deal far greater than most reports disclose

Families who lost loved ones to the terrorist murderers protest outside
the Prime Ministers Office building in Jerusalem, July 28, 2013
[Image Source: DPA]
A version of the interview below, with Arnold Roth, appears in the current print edition of the Australian Jewish News as a Viewpoint column, under the heading "Prisoner Release Plan Pilloried" [PDF version here]
AJN: It seems the prisoner release is not only unpopular with people like yourself touched by the tragedy of indiscriminate killing, but the whole country. So why, in your view, was this decision taken?

Roth: The scale of the unhappiness about freeing the latest round of killers and terrorists is larger by far than people seem to know, even here. That’s for one good reason: the only public opinion poll on the subject has gone mostly unreported. Every one of us can speculate about why the media both inside Israel and beyond it have chosen to ignore the numbers. Israelis, asked just five days ago how they feel about the deal, responded with overwhelming hostility: fewer than one in eleven gave it their support.

But Israelis did not make the decision. The political echelon did, and this highlights one of the odd things about how Israeli politics work. Not a single person in the cabinet room where the decision was made owes his power to the electorate. They are voted in as names on a list. Israelis get to vote for lists. Power brokers get to pick who is on the lists. So over and again, power brokers rather than the ordinary citizenry get to choose who makes the laws and decisions like this one.

Not a single person in that cabinet room had to answer phone calls from angry voters. There are no angry voters in their electorates because there are no electorates. I don’t say this is especially good or especially bad. I simply say that if you are a strong prime minister who imposes discipline on your cabinet by one means or another, you can do things like this.

So then the question is: why would the prime minister want to ram through a decision like this? Does he love the terrorists? No. Is he indifferent to the victims? Probably not. Is he unaware of how unpopular the decision is? No. Does he believe it will bring peace? No.

The answer seems to be that he feels the need to comply with the pressure being applied from Washington. And he feels he will get some foreign policy advantage with the Europeans. These seem like legitimate considerations. But they would make political and ethical sense only if you were to take into account two factors: one - the voices of those who put you in power, and two - the potential for injustice that flows from the decision.  I am fully aware of what the prime minister said about this, but I am certain that he took account of neither of these factors. He is not the first political figure who acts as if the ends will justify the means. The fact that this is how it usually works out does not make it right. This is why my wife and I have done so much writing against the decision that was taken yesterday. We believe it is wrong on many levels, and cannot be justified on any.

AJN: Many people are hailing the resumption of talks as a triumph. What of the view that direct talks must resume no matter the cost?

Roth: I’m not aware of any voices in Israel who see the resumption of talks, which has not yet happened, as a triumph. Even on the left-most fringes of public discourse here, people realize that the Abbas regime is incapable of delivering up a solution to their citizens that will get overt support. In any event, Abbas is ideologically outflanked by Hamas and by the various arms of the Iranians. At best, in the Israeli perception, if the talks resume, it will be seen as a statement of Israel‘s willingness to put aside its legitimate concerns and declare its willingness to treat everything as up for discussion. 

Is this is a winning strategy? Yes, perhaps. But only if you realize the parties to be persuaded are the Americans and the Europeans.

AJN: Palestinian demands for Israeli withdrawal and settlement freezes were not met. Should they have been on the table?

Roth: There was no table. All of this has been about standing in the corridor outside the room where the table is located and squabbling about whether the other side will agree to go through the door and sit down. From the standpoint of simple negotiating strategy, dealing with such a potent, emotive issue as a wholesale release of murderers as a threshold issue prior to starting to talk is simply absurd. The fact that Israel (a) took the Abbas demand seriously and then (b) actually complied with it is a commentary on the scale of Obama administration pressure and on how Israel’s political leadership understands its role vis a vis its supporters.

AJN: Is Netanyahu merely kowtowing to pressure from the US?

Roth: Israel’s political leadership clearly bowed to US demands. There’s no point in addressing our disappointment and frustration at the Obama administration. Politics and foreign relations are always about protecting your own interests, and the US certainly has those. So does Netanyahu.

But, and it’s a very large ‘but’, unlike the Obama administration, Netanyahu owes his political legitimacy to the views of the Israelis who vote in elections. In pushing this disgraceful decision through his cabinet, he dealt with one source of pressure by choosing to ignore all the others. The issues he ignored go to the heart of his right to speak for Israelis.

He ignored the legal justice system which sentenced these prisoners to long-term incarceration. He ignored the entitlement of all Israeli citizens to believe the system of law and order in Israel is free of interference from the politicians and their short-term attention spans. He ignored what he himself knows to be true about negotiating with the terrorists and releasing them from prison under pressure.

In his own book on this subject, he defined what politicians must know: “A government that seeks the defeat of the terrorists must refuse to release convicted terrorists from prisons… Releasing imprisoned terrorists emboldens them and their colleagues… By nurturing the belief that their demands are likely to be met in the future, you encourage terrorist blackmail of the very kind that you want to stop.” (We blogged about this a few days ago: “To defeat the terrorists, what one thing must a government never do?”)

So we’re left wondering at which point Netanyahu was being frank and determined. Was it when he wrote the book? Or when he was put to the actual test? It cannot be both. At one of those two points, he was doing and saying something in which he did not believe.

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