The world is reeling from the Islamist terror attacks that struck India last week. But Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will not let that interfere with his plans to beef up the ranks of Palestinian terrorists with another of his prisoner releases.
Trying to fathom Olmert's conduct – in particular, his preference for freeing jailed Palestinian terrorists with a track record of returning to their bloody business – has become a favorite pastime of pundits. Some say he is drafting his page in future history books. Others suggest that, having lost favor on the Right, he is simply wooing the Left. Still others swear that he aims to be the next Israeli come-back kid and is preparing for a future term as prime minister.
Whatever the merit of such conjecture, no theory fully explicates his irrational obsession with Palestinian prisoner releases. Consider that in August, Olmert granted a prisoner release just in time for Ramadan as a gift to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Now he will hand Abbas 250 more prisoners ahead of the Eid al-Adha festival on December 8.
Olmert is apparently unfazed by the thankless reaction to his last release. "We will not rest until all the prisoners are freed and the jails are empty, "Abbas told a cheering crowd in August on the day those 198 prisoners were welcomed home. The day before Olmert announced the upcoming release, Abbas said of his "partner for peace:” "I would like to draw the attention of the international community to the tragedy that our people are enduring in Gaza and I call on them to intervene to end the unfair siege... which constitutes a war crime." At the same time, Abbas found no time to explain the reasons behind the Israeli siege: Hamas' renewed and intensive Qassam attacks that week on Israeli civilians.
Nor is the Palestinian leader gracious in the face of concessions. Abbas responded to the announcement of a fresh release with fresh demands. He instructed Olmert to include convicted murderer Marwan Barghouti along with Popular Front Secretary General Ahmad Sadat and Palestinian Legislative Council Speaker and Hamas member Aziz al-Dweik.
Such demands are in keeping with the Palestinian leadership’s rhetoric, which has never softened towards Israel. In September, for instance, during a meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Abbas was still adamant that "Palestinian refugees must have the right to return to their homeland," calling it one of the "inalienable Palestinian rights.” This demand for the return of the tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees is a thinly-veiled call for the destruction of the Jewish state. Yet Olmert's office recently dubbed Abbas' party "the pragmatist Palestinian camp."
Equally immaterial to Olmert is that Abbas is politically crippled. Indeed, he is unlikely to survive as President past January 9, 2009, the date of the upcoming PA elections. As such, he would be unable to aid Israel even if he had any desire to do so.
Nor does it matter to Olmert that Hamas, against whom Olmert claims to be propping up the PA, is never weakened by these releases of its Fatah rivals. As recently as November, Haaretz warned: "Gaza is a stockpile of weapons, explosives and, particularly, of motivation to carry out attacks against Israel."
Israeli victims of terror are always incensed by these releases. After all, we, the bereaved live with the dread that one day our own child's murderer will return home to a hero's welcome. A terror victims’ organization called Almagor has reminded Israelis that no less than one third of released terrorists return to terrorism and that they have murdered 180 Israelis, directly contradicting an Israeli spokesman’s recent assurance that "the prisoners slated for release would not be aligned with Islamist movements." Once the new list of prisoners is published, Almagor can be expected to appeal to the Israel’s High Court – and to lose its case, as it has consistently.
Even so, there is considerable evidence of recidivism among the released. This August, for instance, Israel freed Mohammed Abu Ali, a lawmaker from Abbas' Fatah party. Abu Ali was jailed in 1980 for murdering a 20 year old Israeli. He was later convicted of killing a jailed Palestinian whom he accused of collaborating with Israel. So much for the claim that these prisoners have all been rehabilitated.
What about the Palestinian man-on-the-street? Surely he appreciates Olmert's largess. Not quite. In August, prior to the Ramadan release, the Jerusalem Post's Khaled Abu Toameh reported: "It's hard these days to find one Palestinian who regards Israel's decision to release some 200 Palestinian prisoners as a ‘goodwill gesture.’” Of the hundreds of prisoners released after the Oslo Accord, Abu Toameh wrote, many soon became involved "in various criminal activities ranging from armed robberies, extortion, theft and arms trafficking…Others later joined Hamas and other radical groups and became actively involved in armed attacks on Israel during the second intifada." He added: "The argument that [releases] strengthen the 'moderates' has never proven to be correct."
Orit Adato is another prominent skeptic of the wisdom behind prisoner releases. A former head of the Israel Prisons Service and the first international vice president of the International Correction and Prison Association, Adato has issued clear and reasoned recommendations regarding prisoner releases. Adato believes that they can bolster Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority. However, she maintains that such releases should be made only after specific preparatory steps have been carried out by Israelis, Palestinians and the international community. She condemns capricious releases, of the kind favored by Olmert, which are made in the context of stalled and aimless negotiations between Israel and the PA.
But even if they could be otherwise condoned, Olmert's prisoner releases are objectionable in his circumstances. As he contends with a looming indictment and strident calls for his resignation and with general elections scheduled for February, Olmert is no longer an empowered leader.
Nevertheless, a passive cabinet has voted to give Olmert the green light. True, several ministers were opposed. Minister Jacob Edery of Kadimah decried the move, saying that Israel "has made enough gestures to the Palestinians without having received anything in return. You don't have to free terrorists so long as there is no progress in the effort to free Gilad Shalit or the peace talks." And last week Likud MK Reuven Rivlin expressed those sentiments even more bluntly: "Olmert is not relevant to the political process and he does not need to make promises in Israel's name," adding: "We're tired of him and his political mischief."
But last week’s vote proved that even this wide spectrum of protesters is impotent. Olmert's immense and indomitable ego is just too formidable a foe. Several days ago it reared its ugly head in these telling comments: "I talk with Abbas nearly every week. Never has any Israeli prime minister held such extensive negotiations with a Palestinian leader like this…This is a time for decisions. I am ready to make that decision…You don't need months to make a decision," said Olmert.
On the last score Olmert is right. He can and must make one crucial decision: to cancel an ill-conceived release of Palestinian terrorists that rewards the Palestinian leadership for its past failures and promises bloodshed in Israel’s future.