After a bitter debate lasting several hours, Israeli ministers voted Sunday to gradually release 104 long-term Palestinian prisoners in order to facilitate this week’s resumption of negotiations with the Palestinians.
Thirteen ministers voted for the measure, seven against and two abstained. The vote approved the establishment of a committee to manage the phased process of prisoner releases, and approved the resumption of the talks, which are set to restart after a hiatus of almost three years in Washington on Tuesday.
The issue of releasing the prisoners, jailed since before the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993, has divided Israelis, many of whom see the freeing of convicted murderers and terrorists as a price too high to pay for a return to the talks. Others regard it as a necessary evil, meeting a Palestinian demand to enable a resumption of negotiations.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that approving the releases was a deeply painful decision, but one that served the wider interests of the state. Underlining the anguish and divisions over the move, two ministers from Netanyahu’s own Likud party voted against it, and two more abstained.
The list approved by the Cabinet did not include any Israeli-Arab pre-Oslo convicts. Palestinian officials quoted on Israel’s Channel 10 news said Sunday night that this was a problem, since they said Netanyahu had pledged to release more than a dozen Israeli-Arabs.
The committee that will handle the process of four phased releases as the talks continue will be made up of Netanyahu, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, Science Minister Yaakov Peri and Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch. It will decide which prisoners on the list of 104 will go free at what stage, determine whether they will be allowed to return to their homes or be sent into exile, and oversee the implementation.
Peri, a former Shin Bet head who belongs to the centrist Yesh Atid party, was a last-minute addition meant to ensure Netanyahu a majority in the small panel in the event that Ya’alon and Aharonovitch decided to torpedo aspects of the deal.
Peri confirmed after the vote that the list of 104 names did not include any Israeli Arab citizens, more than a dozen of whom have been held since for pre-Oslo terrorist crimes. If their releases were sought, he said, that would require further debate. Ya’alon had objected particularly strenuously to freeing Israeli Arabs since, he said, the Palestinian leadership did not represent them.
Voting in favor of the 104 releases were Netanyahu, Ya’alon, Gideon Sa’ar, and Yuval Steinitz (all Likud); Aharonovitch and Sofa Landver (Yisrael Beytenu); Yair Lapid, Yael German, Peri, and Shai Piron (Yesh Atid); and Livni, and Amir Peretz (Hatnua).
Yisrael Katz and Gilad Erdan (Likud), Naftali Bennett, Uri Ariel and Uri Orbach (Jewish Home), and Uzi Landau and Yair Shamir (Yisrael Beytenu) voted against the measure. The Likud’s Limor Livnat and Silvan Shalom abstained.
Netanyahu said the decision, though tough to make, was needed for the “good of the country.”
“This moment is not easy for me, and it isn’t easy for the government ministers, and is certainly not easy for the bereaved families, whom I deeply understand,” Netanyahu said.
He also said that he didn’t lectures about standing up to terrorism, noting that his brother Yoni was killed leading the 1976 Entebbe rescue operation, extricating hostages from the hands of terrorists. In opposition, Netanyahu opposed the release of terrorists as a move to facilitate peace talks, but two years ago as prime minister he approved the release of more than 1,000 Palestinian security prisoners to secure the freedom from Hamas captivity in Gaza of kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.
— PM of Israel (@IsraeliPM) July 28, 2013
Coalition head Yariv Levin (Likud) blasted the decision as “wrong and immoral.”
“The decision represents a new record in the theater of the absurd in which Israel abandons its security while gaining nothing in return. It has once again been proven that the peace talks are only a means by which the Palestinians extract Israeli concessions, and unfortunately, the government once again fell into this transparent trap,” Levin said immediately after the vote.
Before the meeting, Education Minister Piron and Home Front Defense Minister Erdan unexpectedly announced that they planned to vote against the motion, though Piron ultimately changed his mind. The announcement was a temporary blow to Netanyahu, who had promised Secretary of State John Kerry that the move would go through.
Netanyahu postponed the commencement of the meeting in order to take time to convince his Likud party ministers to back up his proposal. Netanyahu invited Shin Bet head Yoram Cohen to brief the ministers on the security ramifications of approving the release, and said that decisions regarding the release of Arab-Israeli prisoners — a particularly contentious aspect of the move — would be brought before the Cabinet separately, and that any Palestinian “provocation” would lead to the halt of the phased releases.
Cohen told ministers that the release of terror convicts undermined Israel’s deterrent capability, and that with time many would return to terrorist activity. However, he added, a return to negotiations would calm the Palestinian street.
Crucially, Ya’alon said early Sunday that he would back the move “with a heavy heart,” though he would oppose freeing pre-Oslo Israeli Arab convicts. Ya’alon has opposed prisoner releases in the past, and his security credentials — he is a former chief of staff of the IDF — may have eased the worries of some ministers who were hesitant to vote with Netanyahu.
“I believe that renewing the diplomatic process is important for Israel, both in order to bring an end to the conflict and in light of the complex realities in our region, primarily the security challenges from Iran and Syria,” said Netanyahu at the start of the meeting. He added: “Any agreement that will be reached through negotiations, will be brought before the public in a referendum. It is important that on such critical decisions, every citizen gets to weigh in directly.”
The cabinet earlier approved a bill mandating a referendum for any accord involving Israel relinquishing sovereign territory.
The prisoners, some of whom were convicted of major terrorist attacks involving multiple murders, will be released in stages and some may be sent into exile.
The phased approach is meant to ensure the Palestinian side does not walk away from the table once talks begin.
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat welcomed the vote.
“I believe this is a step toward peace and I hope that we can use this opportunity that the US has provided for us to resume negotiations,” Erekat said.
The Palestinian Authority had long sought the prisoners’ release as a precondition for resuming talks, a demand Israel refused. Netanyahu previously offered to free several dozen of the pre-Oslo prisoners, but had balked at releasing them all.
PA President Mahmoud Abbas, speaking to Arabic media Saturday in an apparent reference to the freeing of the prisoners, had said he was expecting “good news” on Sunday.
In Ramallah, though, hundreds of Palestinians marched Sunday against a return to talks, clashing with security forces, Palestinian media reported.
Four Palestinian Authority police officers and three protesters, including a member of the PA legislative council, were injured in the fighting, according to the Maan Palestinian news agency.
Kerry announced in Amman on July 19 that a basis for the resumption of negotiations had been worked out and that Israeli and Palestinian negotiators could be expected in Washington within a week or so. However, in the following days Palestinian officials claimed that the framework for the negotiations was not fully resolved — and restated their demands for the release of the pre-Oslo Palestinian prisoners and for the use of the pre-1967 lines as the basis for negotiations on a Palestinian state.
While waiting for Sunday’s Cabinet meeting to begin, Jewish Home leader Bennett spoke to families of terror victims who were staging a demonstration against the decision outside the Prime Minister’s Office.
“Releasing murderers brings a lot of bereavement and it is a mark of disgrace against Israel. Anyone on the other side [the Palestinians] who today calls for the release of murderers and burners of children and women, does not deserve to be called a partner,” said Bennett.
Bennett told the families to keep their heads held high. “Terrorists need to be wiped out, not released. We will vote against releasing murderers,” he promised.
After the vote he said it was a “tough day” for the government.
Lapid said ahead of the meeting that, while he was saddened by the decision to release murderers, it was necessary in order to give peace a chance.
“This is not a happy day for the state of Israel. These people should rot in prison all of their lives, but we need to do what is possible in order to start the peace process,” said Lapid.
Opposition leader Shelly Yachimovich early Sunday had urged the ministers to vote in favor of the releases. “It is a difficult and painful decision, first and foremost to the victims’ families, but it will not damage Israel’s national fortitude and instead will enable the jump-starting of the negotiations,” said Labor chair Yachimovich. “The prime minister must stop being led by the extremist elements of his cabinet.”
On Saturday, Netanyahu released a letter to the public, calling the decision “extremely difficult,” and saying it “pains the bereaved families [of the victims], it pains the entire Israeli public and it pains me very much. It clashes with a foundational value — justice.”
The letter continued: “Our best response to the loathsome murderers who tried to terrorize us into submission is that in the decades that they sat in prison, we built a state to be proud of.”
Shortly after his announcement, families of Israeli terror victims came out strongly against Netanyahu.
Netanyahu’s decision constituted “surrender,” the families from the Almagor terror victims’ association said in a harshly worded statement. “Again it seems that the prime minister is falling apart and can’t withstand pressure at the difficult moment.”
The families alleged that Israel was being “pressed again into failed negotiation” because of the personal ambitions of US President Barack Obama and his secretary of state, John Kerry.
They said that Netanyahu had issued “repeated assurances” that Israel would not be releasing terrorists and had rebuffed with “various evasions” their requests that he meet with them.
Elhanan Miller, Joshua Davidovich, Asher Zeiger and Michal Shmulovich contributed to this report.