Israel should release prisoners for peace

The headline jumped out at me as I opened the paper last Sunday to read the news: “Netanyahu releases 104 Palestinian prisoners to re-launch peace talks.” As a longtime advocate for a two-state solution, I have frequently thought about the difficult concessions and tough decisions that Israel will face along the way to peace, understanding that an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will require real sacrifice and compromise. But the news hit particularly close to home that day, reminding me exactly how personal and painful these sacrifices can be.

In September 1993 I was 11 years old. I remember watching the famous handshake between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn with my sixth grade Jewish Day School class. I remember my parents who grew up in Jerusalem amidst the war and turmoil of the 60s and 70s, explaining to my brother and I what a historic moment we were witnessing. The world was full of hope that an end to the conflict was in sight. Not even a full month later, on October 9 of that year, we lost my cousin Eran in a devastating terror attack. He was 23 years old, had just finished his army services and was headed to college in a few weeks. He and his best friend Dror decided to take one last hike before the semester began. They stopped at a swimming hole in Wadi Qelt, outside of Jerusalem where they were ambushed and murdered by masked gunmen.

My cousin’s death underscored for me how closely intertwined the story of the state of Israel is with my own family’s personal narrative. From my Sephardic grandmother whose family settled in the old city of Jerusalem more than a century ago, to my paternal great-grandparents who arrived as part of the Second Aliyah, and lastly to my maternal grandparents for whom Israel was a place of refuge after fleeing the Holocaust, every photo in our family album depicts another chapter in the state’s history and development. Losing Eran was perhaps the most painful chapter in this story. For the last 15 years, when I visit Mount Herzl to see the graves of Israeli statesman and Zionist leaders like Theodore Herzl and Yitzhak Rabin, I also make a stop at the monument for victims of terror to lay a stone over Eran’s name.  

[CON: Israel should not release prisoners for peace]

My experience is unfortunately not a unique one. Nearly every Israeli today knows a family that has lost a loved one in the violence of terror or war. And while my cousin’s murderers will not be set free during this round of prisoner releases — because they were never caught — the announcement touches a raw nerve. It’s reminder of the terrible price we have paid in these years of conflict. However, it is precisely because of this price that we know how much we stand to lose without peace.

The resumption of diplomatic negotiations are just the starting line for what will undoubtedly be a long and difficult process with more tough decisions along the way. But we know that for Israel’s survival as a democratic Jewish homeland, there is no choice but to pursue this path.

In his open letter to the Israeli people, Netanyahu explained that these painful concessions were necessary for Israel’s long-term national interests, writing, “From time to time, prime ministers are called on to make decisions that go against public opinion — when the matter is important for the country's well-being.”

The anger and frustration around the announcement are understandable.  I was personally troubled that the Prime Minister decided the prisoner release was politically the “easiest” to make as a first step, rather than agreeing to a settlement freeze or negotiations based on the 1967 lines.

Ultimately though, these abstract “long-term national interests” have a direct bearing on the lives of ordinary families like mine. And, at the same they are larger than any one individual or their family. They are about the needs and desires of people on both sides of the Green Line to live in peace and security, dignity and freedom. And it is about the future that we as Jews see for the state of Israel. Without a negotiated two-state solution to this conflict, we will be faced with an even more painful choice between the country’s Jewish and democratic character.

This October will mark 20 years since Eran’s passing and as we head into this difficult milestone, I find myself asking what this next chapter in Israel’s history will bring for me and my family. The recent news out of the renewed Israeli-Palestinian negotiations remind me of how challenging the road ahead will be, as old wounds are reopened and painful compromises are made. But my cousin’s legacy has also taught me that inaction is not an option; there is simply too much at stake.

Yael Maizel is J Street's Southwest Field Director.