Israel’s Prisoners-for-Settlements Deal Angers Both Sides

Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley
Dec. 31 2013 10:02 AM

Israel’s Prisoners-for-Settlements Deal Angers Both Sides

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Palestinian families celebrate as they wait for the release of Palestinian prisoners at the Mukata Presidential Compound. Each prisoner is wort about 13 settlements to the Israeli government.

Photo by Ilia Yefimovich/Getty Images

On Tuesday, the Israeli government released 26 Palestinian prisoners, the first of 104 whom Israel agreed to set free in exchange for 1,400 new housing units in occupied territories, including 600 in East Jerusalem.* Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu struck the deal with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in an effort to strike a compromise with all parties involved—but instead, he seems to have antagonized both Palestinians as well as Netanyahu's own party. From the New York Times:

Mark Joseph Stern Mark Joseph Stern

Mark Joseph Stern is a writer for Slate. He covers science, the law, and LGBTQ issues.

“He is wrong because he tries to please all sides; the result is nobody is happy with his steps,” said Eitan Haber, a veteran Israeli commentator, invoking a Hebrew idiom about how a bridegroom cannot dance at two weddings. Mr. Haber, who was a close adviser to former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, added, “If you are a true leader, a real leader, you must choose your way, and go and try to implement your ideas.”
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(That idiom, for the record: With one tuchus, you can’t dance at two weddings.)

And it’s not just political figures who have slammed the deal. Israeli intellectuals have expressed discomfort at the very premise of the bargain, which suggests that prisoners—often violent ones—can be used as bargaining chips to exchange for possibly illegal Jewish communities. (By Netanyahu’s math, one prisoner is worth about 13 new homes.) David M. Weinberg, a researcher at Bar-Ilan University, notes:

“The thing that bothers me most is the connection that’s been created between prisoner release and settlement construction. It’s tainted with the whiff of being some sort of perfume meant to cover up the stink of the terrorist release, so that undermines whatever sense of real positive Zionist direction those on the right would theoretically feel from building in the territories.”

Despite this perturbed reaction, the exchange is unlikely to be revoked as Israel prepares for the release of the next set of prisoners—and begins construction on its new settlements. Don’t expect any détente to last for long, though: In the wake of the prisoners-for-settlements deal, an Israeli ministerial committee also endorsed legislation to annex a part of the West Bank along what could be the border of a future Palestinian state, drawing further ire from Palestinian leaders and civilians. 

*Correction Jan. 2, 2014: An earlier version of this post mistakenly described each planned new housing unit as a "settlement." The deal calls for the construction of 1,400 new homes, spread among an unspecified number of settlements.

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