The third phase of Palestinian prisoner releases, overnight Monday-Tuesday, prompted a predictable political storm in Israel. Criticism of the decision to free long-term terrorist convicts came from left and right. Housing Minister Uri Ariel (Jewish Home) was among the loudest critics, for all the world as though he wasn’t part of the government that approved the move; Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday slammed the Palestinians for giving a hero’s welcome to the prisoners he himself had set free.

Naturally, the Hebrew media paid less attention to the implications of the release on the Palestinian side, which are interesting. The release had been intended for Sunday, but was delayed by 24 hours — prompting a protest from the PA to the Americans. But for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and the rest of his Fatah leadership, the delay was more than welcome.

The release, when it went ahead, came on the eve of Fatah’s anniversary celebrations, and those celebrations were particularly exuberant in the Gaza Strip. Defying the possibility of confrontation with the Strip’s Hamas rulers, tens of thousands of Gaza Fatah supporters poured into the streets.

These are relatively good days for Abbas and Fatah. He’s being pictured with freed, veteran prisoners. Surveys show a weakening of Hamas, and a stabilizing of Fatah’s standing. And much of the public seems relatively well disposed to Abbas personally. He’s not too wary of confronting the United States, continuing to threaten to go to the UN in pursuit of statehood as though that gambit were his own equivalent of an Iranian nuclear weapon.

As the prisoners arrived back in the West Bank, Abbas delivered a speech not dissimilar to the one he gave on the previous phase of prisoner releases, promising again that there would be no peace deal without all Palestinian prisoners going free. Except that, this time, he also referred to the Jordan Valley, stressing that it was Palestinian territory, and that “this is a red line, as far as we are concerned.”

Abbas was evidently responding to last month’s Likud-presented bill to annex the Jordan Valley, and thus retain an Israeli civilian and military presence all along the eastern border with Jordan. It took the Palestinians a few days to realize that the bill, though approved by an initial ministerial committee, isn’t going to become law, and was just a populist move by rightist politicians. PA Foreign Minister Riad Malki ultimately termed it a trial balloon by extremists.

Populism notwithstanding, the fate of the Jordan Valley, and the wider issue of security arrangements, are emerging as another major obstacle in the path of the indefatigable US Secretary of State John Kerry’s peace efforts.

Holding talks in Jerusalem and Ramallah this weekend on his 10th trip of the year, Kerry has already indicated he’ll be back again in two weeks. On his recent visits, with the help of General John Allen, Kerry has been trying to find a security formula that will ease Israel’s concerns without shattering Palestinian national pride — precisely as the Bush Administration attempted to do with the help of General Jim Jones.

Allen’s painstakingly drafted security proposals, however, have not produced a breakthrough. Both sides are insisting on keeping the Jordan Valley.

Abbas complains that Israel’s position represents a withdrawal from its previous ostensible stance, during Ehud Olmert’s prime ministership. Consultation with various players on both sides, however, indicates that the truth, as ever, is a little more complicated.

The Eight Points

In 2007, the IDF’s Planning Directorate drew up Israel’s security overview ahead of a peace treaty with the Palestinians. This overview specified the need for an ongoing IDF presence in the Jordan Valley, for a lengthy but undefined period. On the basis of that overview, defense minister Ehud Barak drew up a document, which became known as the “Eight Points,” which he had translated into English and which he detailed to George Bush when the president visited in January 2008.

Barak stressed to Bush the imperative for IDF troops to remain in the Jordan Valley for the long term — a generation, according to some Israeli sources — to ensure no influx of terrorists, weaponry, and other unwanted imports.

In taking this position, Barak was merely reiterating the stance that had prevailed since the Yitzhak Rabin era in the early 1990s. And it holds today: A senior Israeli official told this reporter, this week, that if there is no Israeli presence in the Jordan Valley, “there will be rivers of blood.”

Where there has been something of a change is, first, in Israel’s apparent readiness to relinquish the idea of Israeli sovereignty in the Jordan Valley. And second, in a certain readiness for a smaller security contingent than the major deployments previously demanded. But Israel has given no indication of when it might be prepared to reduce its deployment, and no hint of a timetable for withdrawing altogether.

What other points were in Barak’s Eight Point paper? Well, it dealt with the specifics of a demilitarized Palestinian state, including monitoring and enforcement — via security arrangements not only at the borders, but also inside the state-to-be (including oversight by international forces); the positioning of early-warning stations in the West Bank; details of the IDF’s permissible movements in emergency situations; operational control of air space, and more.

Israel did not seek — in the Eight Point document, or in other discussions with the Americans — the right to carry out arrests inside Palestinian sovereign territory, as Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon is demanding now. It was clear to all sides at the time, this reporter was told this week, that such a demand would not be accepted.

General Jones was dispatched by secretary of state Condoleezza Rice to try to bridge the gaps between Israel and the Palestinians on the issue of the Jordan Valley. Then, as now, the Palestinians said no to an ongoing Israeli presence.

Jones’s attempt at a compromise was that, after three to five years, the IDF would be replaced by a NATO-based international force, led by the US. Jones added a host of high-tech security measures — just like the security “envelope” General Allen is proposing now — aimed at somewhat calming Israeli concerns.

Jones presented his ideas to Abbas, who understood that Israel had accepted them, even though the Israeli security establishment had not given its assent. Olmert, however, did subsequently support the plan and, this reporter was told, asked the Americans to present it to the security establishment. This did not happen. And the peace offer that Olmert made to Abbas in September 2008 provided for an Israeli withdrawal from the Jordan Valley after three years.

That dramatic Olmert offer was never formally presented to Abbas, so it can be argued that the idea of a full Israeli withdrawal from the Jordan Valley was not officially agreed by Israel. Yet Abbas, apparently with some justification, regards Olmert’s offer as having shown Israeli readiness to leave the Jordan Valley.

But Olmert is long gone, of course. Netanyahu holds to very different positions. And given that there was no official Israeli offer, Netanyahu has some justification in saying Israel never agreed to leave the Jordan Valley.

So everybody’s right, kind-of. So right that, even before such core issues as Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees and borders are tackled, the two sides are deadlocked over security arrangements.

The Jordan conundrum

Jordan’s position as regards the western side of the Jordan Valley seems fog-bound.

On the one hand, there have been reports that Jordan opposes the departure of Israeli troops, and these reports have not been denied.

On the other, Jordan’s Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour last week expressed concern at Israel’s ostensible intention to annex the Jordan Valley, saying any such move would constitute a breach of the Israel-Jordan peace treaty. Jordan would “not sit idle” if Israel were to act in this way, he told a group of parliamentarians. A Jordanian government spokesman also declared that Amman considers the entire West Bank to be occupied territory that must come under Palestinian sovereignty.

Israeli sources see no necessary contradiction here. They consider that the Jordanians are walking their perpetual tightrope — expressing clear support for the Palestinian position, while indicating their concern at the security implications of a Jordan Valley with no IDF presence.

Perhaps the fog will clear soon: Amman has been urgently requesting a seat at the Israeli-Palestinian negotiating table. Apparently concerned by the possibility of American surprises, or back-channel talks between Netanyahu and Abbas, Marouf al-Bakhit, a former Jordanian prime minister who is close to King Abdullah, this week said Jordan needed to be at the table in order to defend its interests. “We can’t just be peering in through the window,” Bakhit was quoted as saying, adding that Jordan could not afford to be excluded, because otherwise it risked paying the price of progress in the talks.

Well, at least somebody’s expecting progress.