The first sentence of Phase I of the roadmap is crystal clear, demanding that “the Palestinians immediately undertake an unconditional cessation of violence.” The roadmap’s cease-fire is not contingent upon Israeli performance on any other issue.
Any linkage between the question of Palestinian violence and Israeli implementation of the roadmap makes violence part of the negotiating process.
Not a single mention of Palestinian prisoners or their release is to be found in any of the three phases of the roadmap. The Tenet Plan, to which the roadmap refers, only called upon Israel to release Palestinians “arrested in security sweeps, who have no association with terrorist activities.”
Over the past few weeks, there has been a protracted arm-wrestling match between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, as well as within Israeli and Palestinian governments and societies respectively, regarding the issue of prisoner release. Government meetings and negotiations, press releases and threats, condemnations, and counter-condemnations have all focused on one issue: the release of Palestinian prisoners incarcerated in Israel.
Judging by all the recent global commentary around this issue, one would naturally assume that this is a first and foremost issue of the roadmap, referred to in the first sentence of this document as one of the “performance-based and goal-driven benchmarks” essential for any further progress.
Additionally, militant Islamist groups, like Hamas and Islamic Jihad, have been insisting that unless their prisoners are freed, their temporary truce (hudna) with Israel will be cancelled, thereby creating a formal link between the prisoner release issue and the cease-fire. Are these assertions consistent with the roadmap or a deviation from its original terms?
The Roadmap’s Concept of an Israeli-Palestinian Cease-Fire
While the roadmap includes three phases connected to benchmarks, the first sentence of Phase I is crystal clear, demanding that “the Palestinians immediately undertake an unconditional cessation of violence.” The roadmap’s cease-fire is not contingent upon Israeli performance on any other issue. The requirement of the Palestinians to halt violent activities is absolute. Any linkage between the question of Palestinian violence and Israeli implementation of the roadmap makes violence part of the negotiating process.
The roadmap cease-fire, moreover, is not confined to halting Palestinian terror attacks alone. It states that the “unconditional cessation of violence [be undertaken] according to the steps outlined below.” Those steps include “dismantlement of terrorist capabilities and infrastructure,” as well as “commencing confiscation of illegal weapons.” In terms of sequence, it is clear from reading the roadmap that these security steps are an inherent part of the definition of a cease-fire and are to be implemented immediately as well.
Unfortunately, the Palestinian Authority security services have not taken one step to dismantle the terrorist organizations or disarm them, in accordance with their obligations. Worse still, Palestinian ministers, like Muhammad Dahlan, have repeatedly asserted that they have no intention of implementing this roadmap obligation. True, the Palestinian Authority has taken some initial steps against incitement, a handful of weapons were confiscated from “criminal elements” – not members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and some attempted attacks were foiled. But the roadmap’s fundamental demand to deal with the terrorist groups by removing them along with their arms has yet to be acted upon. Moreover, there are increasing signs that Palestinian organizations, like Hamas, are actually expanding their infrastructure, by increasing the rate of production of Qassam rockets and upgrading their range.
The Roadmap and the Prisoner Release Issue
Overlooked in the controversy over prisoner release is the fact that not a single mention of Palestinian prisoners or their release is to be found in any of the three phases of the roadmap. The only possible reference appears in the roadmap’s demand that “Palestinians and Israelis resume security cooperation based on the Tenet work plan” – a demand which is a “supportive measure” to the immediate cessation of violence, certainly not a precursor to it. In any case, the Tenet Plan itself only called upon Israel to release Palestinians “arrested in security sweeps, who have no association with terrorist activities.”
So before the two parties have even begun to follow the roadmap, Israel already finds itself in a corner: on the one hand, a cease-fire which was supposed to be immediate and unconditional has become temporary and contingent upon prisoner release; on the other hand, the Palestinians are not moving ahead on other “immediate” demands of the roadmap, such as dismantling terrorist groups (or disarming them) and comprehensive political reform, until the prisoner issue is settled to their satisfaction.
Within a very brief period, Israel has found itself at a strategic disadvantage as the Palestinians focus our own attention on the issue of prisoner release and effectively divert world attention from critical demands for performance on the Palestinian side.
The roadmap, which has been accepted by Israel and the Palestinians as the compass for the peace process, is today the prism through which progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front is globally judged. Israel must play strictly by the roadmap, meticulously monitoring Palestinian compliance with each and every benchmark and demand of the roadmap, and not veering off it, especially when the Palestinians seek to divert attention to an issue that was never part of it.
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Eli Kazhdan is a senior researcher at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He served as a foreign policy advisor to Minister Natan Sharansky.