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Israel's Latest Settlement Plan Endangers Peace Talks

On Sunday, Israel will release a third group of Palestinian prisoners -- setting up yet another challenge to the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.

If the past is any guide, events will then unfold with the precision and predictability of a piece of kabuki theater. Thousands of Palestinians headed by President Mahmoud Abbas will welcome the released murderers home and hail them as national heroes. The prisoners themselves will express no regrets or remorse for their acts.

In Israel, the families of the bereaved will be interviewed on TV expressing their horror. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will pronounce his sorrow -- but argue the release was necessary for national security considerations.

Next, the Israeli government will announce the approval of several thousand new housing units across the Green Line. They have already announced they will do so -- and it's utter foolishness. The United States, which asked Israel not to do this, will protest calling the settlements "illegitimate" and the Palestinians will withdraw from the peace negotiations. Perhaps this time, they won't come back for a while.

Secretary of State John Kerry will return to the region to try to get the negotiations on track again. Several days, maybe weeks later, the parties will reconvene -- hopefully.

And then we can look forward to the fourth tranche of prisoner releases and go through the whole dance again.

Does all this have to happen? Wouldn't it be nice if the leaders of both sides behaved responsibly in a way that suggests they actually want peace? For a start, Abbas might consider skipping the festivities and avoid kissing the released prisoners. For its part, Israel should not announce more settlement activity.

It's hard to see how announcing new construction in the occupied territory helps anyone at all. All Israelis share the general revulsion for the release of murderers -- yet the government's reaction is designed to assuage the feelings only of the settler movement and the extreme right -- who oppose the talks and the two-state solution anyway and will not be changing their minds. In any case, what has one thing to do with the other?

By announcing new settlements, Israel undermines the basis for the talks. By embracing the released prisoners, Abbas undermines Israeli confidence that he is serious about making peace.

Let's remember, it was Netanyahu who agreed to these prisoner releases. Israel was given two choices of goodwill gestures at the onset of the current round of peace negotiations, to either freeze settlement construction or release prisoners. Netanyahu chose to release the prisoners.

Others have reported there was also a third choice: Israel could have avoided the prisoner release by agreeing to state upfront that it would negotiate on the basis of the 1967 lines plus land swaps -- which everyone assumes is the basis of the current talks with the Palestinians anyway. This was blocked by the ultra-nationalist Jewish Home Party which opposes a two-state solution and wants to annex most of the West Bank. That party now has the audacity to lead opposition to the prisoner release - which it forced on Netanyahu.

Netanyahu has committed Israel to the prisoner release and now must follow through. But he should start building support at home for the negotiations and begin to prepare the public for the painful concessions Israel will have to make in order for them to proceed. The Palestinians should do the same.

We need to keep our focus on the grand prize -- an end to the conflict, an end to occupation and a peaceful and prosperous future for the two nations living side by side. We wish Netanyahu had chosen either of the other two options he was presented with instead of the prisoner exchange. But right now, we need to get it over with and move on with the negotiations.

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