When Palestinian negotiators enter the Jerusalem hotel designated for the face-to-face negotiations with their Israeli counterparts on Wednesday, they would complete falling into a well-planned negotiations trap.
Palestinians have committed themselves to participate in the talks for the next nine months, irrespective of what Israel does on the ground. The Israelis, who carefully laid this trap, have already reaped the benefits of knowing that no matter what they do Palestinians are highly unlikely to walk out of the talks. The Israeli cabinet's announcement of hundreds of settlement tenders in Jerusalem and other West Bank areas proves that Israel has the upper hand in this process.
The setting up of this trap began when the Israelis realised that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was intent on obtaining the release of some 100 fedayeen that were the foot soldiers of the PLO over 20 years ago. At the time, these fighters received orders from PLO leaders like Yasser Arafat and Abbas and carried out military operations against Israelis. These soldiers, who were captured and sentenced, had been left to rot in Israeli jails while their leaders were free in Tunisia and were later given permission to return to Palestine and take over the Palestinian Authority. Arafat and the PLO had always asked for their release and in fact in 1999 as part of the Sharm El Sheikh agreement their release was agreed. But they were not freed when the second Intifada erupted in October 2000. When the current talks began, Abbas made the release of these pre-Oslo prisoners his personal crusade.
While Abbas was forced to accept verbal American promises that Israel will refrain from settlement activities and that the framework of the negotiations will be the 1967 borders, he insisted that Palestinians would not participate in the talks until he was assured that the old promise he made to the families of his foot soldiers would in fact be fulfilled. Realising that they had found Abbas' Achilles heel, the Israelis agreed, but only after stretching out the release of the 104 prisoners over the nine-month period. Instead of the prisoner release being a fulfilment of a 19-year-old Israeli commitment, or even simply a natural gesture for peace, they have now become Israel's powerful blackmailing tool for ensuring Palestinian participation in the peace talks. Assured that Palestinians will not walk out now and risk not having the prisoners released, the Israelis can now sit back, knowing they have nine-month reprieve from international censure for their continuous and internationally rejected 46-year occupation of Palestinian lands.
To add insult to injury, the Israelis -- having secured Palestinian compliance in the peace process, even if no peace might emerge -- now feel free to continue their expansionist policy. Just like a hostage held at gunpoint by a kidnapper, Abbas can't even consider walking out of talks due to Israeli belligerence and intransigence on the ground in the areas under its occupation. The most powerful negotiating asset that Palestinians had -- namely the power to say no -- has now been hijacked in order to secure the release of 100 prisoners.
The prisoner release, dubbed as a gesture to bolster Abbas' standing, was executed in such a manner as to turn off the most ardent Palestinian optimist. The names of the prisoners to be released in the first round were chosen solely by Israel and included some who had a few months left to serve. No well-known prisoner was in the first batch. The timing of the release also reflected bad faith. Even though the Israeli courts cleared the release by Tuesday afternoon, the actual release didn't take place till past midnight and after humiliating body searches of the prisoners and a final three-hour imprisonment in a bus with closed windows. Israel said it made sure that the windows could not open so that prisoners couldn't flash the victory sign when they were freed from jail. Israel also justified its midnight release by saying it didn't want Palestinians to celebrate. In fact, Israel simply didn't want its own people to see Palestinians celebrating the release of their heroes, who are considered terrorists by Israelis.
The Palestinian leaders' trap is of their own making. They gave priority to a humanitarian goal -- the release of long-term prisoners -- and the other side took advantage of this natural desire to further its expansionist goals. If this shows anything, it is that the main goal of the current negotiations is the appearance of a process and not peace.