Israel: Negotiations and prisoners

December 18th, 2008 | Posted in Palestine, Prisoners

Interview with Sergio Yahni of the Alternative Information Center, by Stefan Christoff.

Photo: Active Stills. Palestinians protest against Israel’s apartheid wall.

U.S.-backed negotiations between the Palestinian Authority and Israel continue with little concrete results, as political promises from the U.S. administration to establish an independent Palestinian state in 2008 are distant from the reality on the ground. On the street level in both Israel and Palestine popular opinion expresses increasing political frustration towards the ongoing ‘peace process’.

Palestinian political prisoners are a key issue to the ongoing conflict, as Israel continues to imprison an estimated seven-thousand Palestinian prisoners. Israel released around two-hundred prisoners last week in an attempt to boost waning political support for the Palestinian Authority, while thousand more remain behind bars many held without trail under the Israeli policy of ‘administrative detention’.

Beyond Palestine political prisoners is a key issue throughout the region, as Israel continues to hold multiple prisoners from other countries, including Jordan, Syria and Egypt. Israel and Hezbollah negotiated a major prisoner swap this past summer, which saw the release of famed Lebanese political prison Samir Kuntar from Israeli prison, winning major political points for the armed resistance to Israel inside Lebanon.

Sergio Yahni, an Israeli activist and researcher with the Jerusalem-based Alternative Information Center, comments on the ongoing U.S.-backed negotiations, the importance of political prisoners for the region and the upcoming elections in Israel. Offering unique and progressive insight from within Israel, Yahni provides an insightful take on the current political winds in Israel and throughout the region.

Stefan Christoff: First want to hear your comments on contemporary discussions taking place in Israel/Palestine concerning political prisoners, a central issue on the Palestinian street. In recent months the Israeli government has released some Palestinian prisoners. Also this past summer there was the critically important prisoner exchange deal between Israel and Hezbollah. Can you address the importance of prisoners within the ongoing conflict?

Sergio Yahni: In talking about prisoners in Israel it is critical to understand the issue in a regional context. Israel has made little concessions to the Palestinian Authority within the ongoing negotiations and a limited release of Palestinian prisoners comes as a fall-out from Israel’s release of Lebanese political prisoners this past summer.

Israel is attempting to illustrate to the world through decorative Palestinian prisoner releases that negotiations can lead to solutions, although clearly the prisoner releases by Israel are really nothing in comparison to the thousands of prisoners held in Israeli jails, including multiple elected Palestinian political leaders.

In Israel the release of former Lebanese political prisoner Samir Kuntar was considered non-negotiable for many years, however Hezbollah was able to secure this release without any major concessions; only the return of the two dead soldiers from the 2006 war.

Hezbollah won this major release of political prisoners through open confrontation with Israel, while the Palestinian Authority which is actively negotiating with Israel has gotten nothing, absolutely no real concessions from Israel.

Also the Palestinians which have been released are mostly those held in ‘administrative detention’, essentially people including many youth who were being held without trial and the others prisoners were scheduled to be released anyways.

Also the Palestinian Authority hasn’t been allowed to specify who was to be released, it has been Israel who dictates the terms on who is going to be released and who is going to stay in jail. In comparison Hezbollah was able to unilaterally set the terms for the prisoner exchange this past year.

Stefan Christoff: Can you talk about the reaction within Israel society to the prisoner exchange with Hezbollah this past summer. Hezbollah until now has refused to recognize or deal with Israel on an official level, while the Lebanese movement won a very powerful symbolic victory with the prisoner exchange this past summer. Talk about how this prisoner exchange with Lebanon is perceived in Israel.

Sergio Yahni: In recent years Hezbollah has secured very larger achievements in the struggle against Israel. Hezbollah was able to halt Israeli troops from making any serious advances in Lebanon in 2006, while was also able to undue the U.S.-driven ‘cedar’ revolution in Lebanon and finally Hezbollah was able to dictate the terms of a major prisoner release from Israel. All huge victories, through action Hezbollah has illustrated that it is not negotiations that result in concessions from Israel.

This context has created a major problem within Israeli society, a society that believes very strongly in the power of the army. Objectively Israel has the power to destroy Lebanon, with nuclear weapons, with non-conventional weapons, however Israel hasn’t proven to be able to translate military force into political achievements in Lebanon.

Media in Israel is generally is very militaristic and analysis in regards to Hezbollah seldom takes into account the boarder historical and political context to the ongoing conflict.

Both the Israeli press and state generally put forward a similar position; that Israel could defeat Hezbollah in another war after fixing some logistical or technical problems, an analysis that doesn’t address the real substantial issues.

Stuck in the gap between state and media propaganda is a harsh reality and as a result many people in Israel generally prefer to escape. Today unprecedented numbers of Israelis are leaving the country.

Also many people are trying to escape even inside Israel. In Israel there is a huge growth in escapist religious practices, with a growing number of people appropriating eastern religions, with a growing number of ashrams, etc.

This is a direct reaction to the negative space between reality and what Israelis are being told to believe by the government and major media. Given this gap between what Israelis are told about the state of their country and the actual reality many choose to escape, to remove themselves from reality. However escapism is central to Israel’s current problem because without an active intervention from the Israeli population the reality on the ground will never change.

Stefan Christoff: There are preparations for a general election in Israel. A major point in the elections will be the fall-out from the war on Lebanon in 2006. Can you address the importance of this issue within the upcoming election and your thoughts on the elections in general?

Sergio Yahni: Israel is facing an extremely corrupt political system, not only corrupt on a systemic level but also is a system that is run by corrupt people. All over the world politicians spoke about the corruption of the Palestinian Authority under Arafat, however this corruption was a game compared to the corruption going on inside Israeli political circles today.

In Israel we have an outgoing Prime Minister who is thoroughly corrupt, six major corruption cases pending, we had a finance minister in Israel who is now prison now for stealing money, while millions in funding marked for holocaust survivors went missing at the finance ministry last year.

There are serious charges all the way to the top, as Israel’s former President is charged with rape. Throughout the Israeli political system we are talking about serious corruption and criminality.

Ehud Barak also is very corrupt, someone who made around 30 million Euros since finishing the last stint as Prime Minister, millions made in the international arms industry.

Everyone in Israel knows that the political system is totally corrupt. Politically the mild left doesn’t provide a real alternative to this corrupt political system, while the political ‘center’ in Israel is the center of corruption.

People are faced with little options within the political system, from the extreme right-wing, to Benjamin Netanyahu, to the corrupt center and the Zionist left which proposes nothing different.

Real issues are not being addressed by the major parties in the Israeli political system, central issues like the ongoing Israeli occupation over the West Bank and Gaza, the limits of Israeli military forces as seen in 2006 and also the growing economic disparities inside Israel. All these central issues will not be addressed in the general elections.

U.S. companies are coming to Israel to brand the different candidates and campaigns in the lead-up to the elections, equalling politics without substance. In this branding process Ehud Barak will present himself as ‘mister security’, claiming that the war against Lebanon would have gone differently with a Barak government; total propaganda.

In Israel the extreme right is set to make serious gains in the next election, with Benjamin Netanyahu potentially becoming a left-wing marker in the next government in comparison to Israeli right politicians who are closer to being fascist.

Stefan Christoff: You mentioned that Ehud Barak was involved in arms trading can you expand on this point?

Sergio Yahni: Details are limited on Barak’s dealings within the arms industry; however it is clear that there involvement in arms companies operating in Eastern Europe.

Details are limited because the moment that Ehud Barak was nominated as minister of defence, Barak openly refused to disclose sources of personal wealth. Generally politicians taking high office in Israel and many other countries are mandated to disclose their financial history; however Ehud Barak refused to disclose these details and was given the position anyways.

However it is certain that serious money was made in Eastern Europe through arms companies that are registered outside Israel. In many other countries the refusal to disclose financial records from a high-ranking politician would be a scandal and considered illegal, however in Israel this isn’t the case.

Stefan Christoff: Finally can you comment on the ongoing speculations on the possibility for Israel to negotiate with Syria and Lebanon, are these rumours based in fact or fiction?

Sergio Yahni: Israel is not in a situation to negotiate on real issues, given many points already outlined in this interview. Dialogue is possible with Syria, Lebanon, the Palestinian Authority, Hezbollah and Hamas, however no major political party inside Israel is in a position where they can make any real concessions through negotiations.

Today negotiations in Israel are being perused simply for the sake of negotiations, not in order to reach any real solution, negotiations based on an attempt to stall any real discussions on the core issues by Israel; issues like the right of return of Palestinian refugees, the occupation and political prisoners.

Historically the situation today is very similar to the political reality just prior to the October 1973 war when subsequent Egyptian leaders, first Nasser and then Sadat, proposed negotiations on the Sinai territory of Egypt and Israel clearly refused, this directly lead to a major war.

Today is a similar situation, as the continual refusal from Israel to negotiate on the key issues will lead to war, sooner or later. It is not clear when this war will happen, however there will be a war because the situation is totally blocked. This war will lead to an extremely dangerous situation for everyone in the region.

Sergio Yahni is the Program Director of the Alternative Information Center (AIC) in Jerusalem.

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