Controversial prisoner release takes heat from right

Controversial prisoner release takes heat from right

Hawkish politicians say move won't bring peace, but Livni and Peri say the alternative was worse, and that convicts will only go free as talks make progress

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (center) flanked by ministers at the cabinet meeting on July 28, 2013. (photo credit: Miri Tzahi/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (center) flanked by ministers at the cabinet meeting on July 28, 2013. (photo credit: Miri Tzahi/Flash90)

Israeli politicians on the right lambasted the government Sunday for agreeing to the phased release of 104 Palestinian prisoners in order to facilitate the resumption of peace talks, with some saying the move would lead to more terrorism.

“We are going down a slippery slope,” said Economics Minister Naftali Bennett (Jewish Home), who voted against the measure. “First we released a terrorist in exchange for a live soldier, then 100 terrorists for a live soldier, followed by terrorists in exchange for a dead soldier, and now 100 terrorists for a ‘process.’”

The issue of releasing the prisoners, jailed since before the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords, has divided Israelis, many of whom see the freeing of convicted murderers and terrorists as a price too high to pay for the return to talks, set to resume on Tuesday in Washington. Others, though, see it as a necessary evil. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it a painful decision, but one in the interests of the state. The decision passed by a vote of 13-7 with two abstentions, after a stormy session lasting several hours.

Agriculture and Rural Development Minister Yair Shamir (Yisrael Beytenu), another of the ministers who voted no, said that the vote “creates a dangerous precedent” in how Israel enters a process whose end is so uncertain. “Negotiations with the Palestinians must begin without preconditions,” he said. 

Shamir, the son of a former prime minister, the late Yitzhak Shamir, emphasized that this would mark the first time that terrorists would be released not as part of a prisoner exchange or in return for the bodies of Israelis killed. He warned that the decision “crosses a red line.”

Bennett said that the message of Sunday’s Cabinet vote is that “everything is negotiable,” and that the decision will eventually lead to the release of the murderers of five members of the Fogel family, killed in their home in the West Bank settlement of Itamar by terrorist infiltrators in March 2011.

Science Minister Yaakov Peri (Yesh Atid), a former head of the Shin Bet who will sit on a panel meant to administer the process, acknowledged the dilemmas surrounding Sunday’s decision, but said that the alternative would have been worse.

“As one who was responsible for the pursuit and capture of many of these murderers, this is a … heartbreaking and tragic decision,” said Peri. “But not returning to the negotiating table would be even more serious.”

Peri, who voted for the release, recognized that there is no way to know for certain how the process will develop, but said there is no doubt that Israel will enter the negotiations with a serious desire to achieve peace.

The move was loudly protested by hundreds outside the Prime Minister’s Office Sunday, including family members of terror victims.

Gila Tamam, the mother of Moshe Tamam, a soldier killed in 1984 while on leave, said she was against releasing her son’s killer, because it would not bring peace.

“Where is the peace?” she asked on Channel 2. “If there was peace, I would die for peace. There will not be peace, [PA President Mahmoud] Abbas is a liar.”

But Ben Kfir, whose daughter Yael was killed in a 2003 terror attack and who has been involved in the Combatants for Peace coexistence movement, said he saw no point in keeping the prisoners in jail.

“The fact that terrorists are sitting in our jails does not bring me solace and does not fill the hole [that remains],” he told the channel.

Deputy Education Minister Avi Wortzman (Jewish Home) called the decision “terrible,” saying that it “provides an opening for the Palestinians to make excessive demands.” He further expressed shock at the government’s failure to “learn the lessons of similar cases in the past, in which the release of terrorists only rewarded the murderers.”

Nissan Slomiansky (Jewish Home) called the decision an “unprecedented disgrace,” and said that “releasing prisoners solely for entering into negotiations is to capitulate to the Palestinian Authority dictates.”

Slomiansky connected the decision to the American refusal to release convicted naval spy Jonathan Pollard.

“One would have expected that the United States, which is fighting terror, would have avoided pressing Israel to release murderers, while it has refused for years to release one Israeli citizen who is not a terrorist and does not constitute a security threat,” he said.

Netanyahu said that 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 especially not for the bereaved families, whom I deeply understand,” Netanyahu said.

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,” he said immediately after the vote.

Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, tasked by Netanyahu to head Israel’s negotiating team with the Palestinian Authority, called the Cabinet decision one of the most important — and most difficult — decisions the government has had to make.

Livni said that, unlike previous occasions when Israel was forced to release prisoners “with a gun to its head” to appease terror organizations, Sunday’s decision was different.

“We made a decision to release vile murderers who have sat in Israeli prisons for many years, and rightly so. They will only be released if the negotiations are serious, and this is the answer to those who are willing to release for peace.” Livni added that “without the (peace) process and without negotiations, there cannot be peace.”

Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz (Likud) said that “the release of prisoners is a mistake, just as the settlement freeze was a mistake.” Katz said that “within six months it will become clear that releasing terrorists leads nowhere and only worsens our situation in the region and in the world. We should have insisted on negotiations with no preconditions.”

Minister for Senior Citizens Affairs Uri Orbach (Jewish Home) said that Israel “should not have to pay such hard currency for damaged goods whose value I do not trust.” He compared the peace process to the ancient pagan god Molech, “that has to be fed constantly … yet is never sated.”

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