It is impossible for any thinking person to view yesterday's release of Palestinian prisoners - and the planned release of more prisoners - with anything but very mixed feelings.
Anyone who recognizes that Israeli-Palestinian peace is vital for Israel's security and viability as a democracy and a Jewish state must welcome the release -- as a measure that can strengthen and give credibility to the new negotiating effort -- even as we feel compassion for those for whom these releases awaken terrible memories of heinous crimes committed against loved ones.
There are good reasons to criticize Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu's decision to release prisoners. He had other options. He could have agreed to curb settlement expansion. He could have assented to what everyone knows is reality: negotiations and any future agreement are going to be based on the 1967 lines. But for Netanyahu, these options, both of which conflict with a pro-settlement, Greater Israel agenda - were unacceptable. Nobody was going to tell Netanyahu what he could or couldn't do on settlements - no matter what the cost.
Thus, Netanyahu's dogged determination to press ahead with settlement construction left prisoner releases as his only option. It is an option that sows pain and outrage among Israelis, many of whom have apparently forgotten that, if Israel had lived up to prior agreements (detailed here), the prisoners in question would have been released long ago. Indeed, it was the failure of successive Israel governments to live up to their freely-undertaken commitments to release prisoners that left the issue open through the present day, and that provided Netanyahu an option to avoid taking action on settlements or having to acquiesce to the 1967 lines as the basis for talks.
Of course, Netanyahu immediately demolished any good faith his action to release prisoners might have generated, by in parallel going nuclear on settlements. His actions in recent days, moving forward with more than 3000 new units in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and approving special subsidies and benefits for 90 settlements -humiliated both his Palestinian negotiating partner and the U.S., as backer of this peace effort. These actions also squandered any good will he might have hoped to buy in the international community, at a time when his government is picking a dangerous battle with the EU - a battle that (surprise) prioritizes the settlements and settlers over Israel's own interests.
During his previous four years in office, the Netanyahu government adopted settlement policies that appeared designed to deliberately and systematically undermine the two-state solution. At present, there is every indication that he plans to resume this same course, now that the peace process is back in motion. Indeed, it seems that Netanyahu believes, cynically, that prisoner releases gives him more or less a free pass on settlements. Unless something is done quickly to alter this twisted dynamic - meaning forceful U.S. engagement to put limits on Netanyahu's actions, including imposing consequences for bad behavior - the prospects for this new peace effort surviving, let alone bearing fruit, are dimming rapidly.