Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/REUTERS
The mother of Palestinian Salah al-Shaer, who has been held by Israel for 20 years, kisses his picture after hearing news on the expected release of her son in Khan Younis, in the southern Gaza Strip, August 12, 2013. Israel on Monday named 26 Palestinian prisoners to be freed this week under a deal enabling U.S.-backed peace talks to resume, although Palestinians said these had been undermined by newly announced plans to expand Israeli settlements.

Israelis seethe over Palestinian prisoner release ahead of peace talks

The release of 26 Palestinian prisoners and the approval of West Bank settlement expansions has both Israelis and Palestinians crying foul.

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A day after stirring harsh rebuke from Palestinians over the greenlighting of further settlement construction in Palestinian territory, the Israeli government angered many Israelis when it announced the names of 26 Palestinian prisoners to be released on Wednesday as part of the US-backed deal to relaunch peace talks.

The Financial Times reports that the prisoners' release – the first of 104 Palestinians Israel agreed in principle to free as part of the peace talks – is highly unpopular among the Israeli public because most of those being set free were convicted of the murder of Israelis or were suspected Palestinian collaborators.

“It’s a victory for the Palestinians who are identified with the terrorists, and it’s a sad day for society in Israel and it’s a sad day for free society in the world,” Meir Indor, chairman of Almagor, a Jerusalem-based advocacy group for victims of terrorist attacks, told the Financial Times. The group has petitioned Israel’s Supreme Court to stop the release.

Uri Ariel, Israel’s housing minister and a member of the rightwing Jewish Home party in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition, said on Monday that the release made a “mockery of the judiciary”.

The prisoners' names were announced early to provide a 48-hour window for those opposed to their release to file appeals to Israel's High Court. But Reuters notes that "based on past decisions, the court is widely expected not to intervene."

The Israeli furor over the prisoners' release comes less than 24 hours after a similarly negative reaction from Palestinians in response to Israel's statement Sunday that it would allow construction of some 1,200 homes in West Bank and East Jerusalem settlements to move forward. Palestinians say that the move is an attempt to undermine the peace talks before they start.

"Approving such a massive number of housing units three days before we go to negotiations is sick,’’ a Palestinian official familiar with the negotiations told The Christian Science Monitor. "We may not come" to the talks, he said.

But the Monitor also reports that some say the move was necessary to allow peace talks to proceed, by "mollify[ing] Mr. Netanyahu’s pro-settler constituency, which is upset over the renewed talks" and the prisoner releases.

"It’s a familiar playbook. Kerry and the Palestinians knew this kind of announcement was coming. So they have to protest. None of this will affect the opening of talks because it was all choreographed," says [Yossi Alpher, a former prime ministerial adviser on peace talks]. "It's a counter productive dynamic – building settlements to negotiate. It’s not something that Netanyahu invented. Rabin, Peres and Barak all did the same thing.’’

Some Palestinians also see the move as an Israeli tactic to undermine Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and force him to step away from the negotiating table – thereby making the Palestinians seem like the side opposed to peace.

Israel "understands the psychology of the Palestinians. Now that the Palestinians want to override this settlements obstacle, Israeli radicals are planting minefields to undermine the credibility of the PA so it will walk away," says Mohammed Dajani, a political science professor at Al Quds University.

"I think the president (Abbas) is pragmatic. He understands that these people are trying to derail the process. The question is how it will affect his popularity among the Palestinians, and how the Palestinians will read that.’’

In an analysis for Haaretz, Barak Ravid writes that the Israeli government's contradictory responses to the peace talks stem from Netanyahu's unwillingness to "cross the Rubicon" and commit fully to them.

A senior Israeli official close to the prime minister said he thinks Netanyahu still has not yet crossed the river. On the one hand, he has stepped into the water and started marching toward the other bank. But on the other hand, he is looking back every few seconds, and for every step forward, he is allowing the current to push him back three steps. ...

Officials who have spoken to Netanyahu say his behavior, his hesitation and zigzagging result from his lack of trust in Abbas. Netanyahu, say the officials, is willing to cross the river but wants to know if Abbas will do the same. He is worried that while he is jumping into the turbulent waters filled mostly with political whirlpools, Abbas will remain on the bank and let him drown alone.

If Netanyahu wants the Americans, Palestinians and most of all the Israeli public to take him seriously, he must leave his old tactics behind. Abandon the criticism, the spin, worn-out PR tricks and blame games - and enter the peace talks without looking back.

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