Jeffrey Goldberg. Photographer: Steve Voss/Bloomberg
Jeffrey Goldberg. Photographer: Steve Voss/Bloomberg

As a condition for participating in talks to decide the contours of peace negotiations, the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, demanded that the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, release dozens of Palestinian prisoners.

The prime minister, under pressure from John Kerry -- the indefatigable U.S. secretary of state who is paying insufficient attention to the conflagration in Syria and the unraveling of Egypt in order to focus on restarting negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians -- agreed to release, in stages, 104 prisoners, including the terrorist murderers of children and Holocaust survivors.

Two of the men set to be released, according to the Washington Post, are Jumaa Adem and Mahmoud Kharbish, who killed a mother and three of her children in 1988, along with an Israeli soldier who tried to save them. Another is Mohammad Adel Daoud, who killed a pregnant woman and her 5-year-old son in a 1987 firebomb attack.

Members of Netanyahu’s cabinet, and many other Israelis, opposed the release, but the prime minister, mindful of pleasing the American government, rammed it through. The prisoner release does one good thing -- it proves to the Palestinian public that the Palestinian Authority, and not just the terrorist group Hamas, is capable of freeing murderers from Israeli prisons, and thus it buttresses the standing of Abbas, a more moderate figure on the Palestinian spectrum. (Moderation in the Middle East, of course, is relative; in other parts of the world, the release of child-murderers from prison wouldn't be considered a moment of national celebration.)

But viewed another way, the prisoner release represents a moral defeat, a political defeat (Israel gets nothing up front in return for the initial release) and a security challenge as well. Setting murderers, even superannuated ones, free from prison in large batches doesn't enhance the personal safety of Israeli citizens.

The real tragedy here is that the prisoner release is unnecessary. The Palestinian side was looking for any number of concessions. The Israeli government wouldn't have been forced to release these murderers from prison had it agreed to a full freeze on the growth of Jewish settlements. This is the concession moderate Palestinians are looking for -- proof from the Israeli government that the settlements won't spread inexorably, thus stymieing forever the birth of an independent Palestinian state. But all Netanyahu could come up with on that front is a plan to temporarily limit, not freeze, the growth of settlements. That wasn't enough for the Palestinians, or the U.S.

As Barak Ravid wrote in Haaretz, “Netanyahu pledged that he had not succumbed to the preconditions set by the Palestinians in regard to the 1967 borders and settlement freeze. What he didn’t say, though, was that had he accepted these preconditions, all 104 prisoners would have remained behind bars.”

So there you have it. The government of Benjamin Netanyahu would sooner release murderers from prison than stop building apartments on the West Bank. In traditional Zionist thought, land was a means to an end: Land within the borders of biblical Israel was understood to be a vehicle for Jewish redemption and security. Thus, possession of all the biblical heartland wasn't understood to be a moral and spiritual necessity, if such possession would undermine the safety of Israelis or the moral and political standing of Israel itself.

For members of Netanyahu’s party and his broader coalition, however, the possession of these biblical lands is paramount. They have become idol worshippers, and their idol is land. How else to explain what just happened: An Israeli government decided to venerate land over justice, and over life itself.

(Jeffrey Goldberg is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter.)