A ministerial committee headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is set on Sunday to approve the names of 25 Palestinian prisoners to go free on Tuesday. The planned releases constitute the second phase of a four-stage prisoner release deal, agreed as part of ongoing US-brokered peace efforts between Israel and the Palestinians. The releases will be accompanied by the announcement of new plans for West Bank settlement construction, a senior Israeli official said.
The religious-nationalist Jewish Home coalition party has bitterly attacked the planned prisoner releases in recent days, and on Sunday is set to raise legislation to prevent such releases; opposed by Netanyahu, the legislation has no prospect of success.
Although the prisoner release deal was approved by Netanyahu, Jewish Home, led by Economics minister Naftali Bennett, blamed Hatnua leader Tzipi Livni, the justice minister and chief negotiator with the Palestinians, for it.
MK Ayelet Shaked of Jewish Home told Channel 2 Saturday that Jewish Home has made its opposition clear to Netanyahu. ”We told the prime minister that we are against release of terrorists. It’s immoral. No other country in the world does it,” she said, adding incredulously, “we release terrorists as a gesture [to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas] and he promotes a boycott against us?”
Jewish Home also made plain it was not appeased by news of further homes to be built in the settlements. In a statement on Thursday, the party said, “the attempt to link the release of the murderers to construction tenders is manipulative and morally wrong. It will be better if the prime minister does not release murderers and does not build. This looks like a despicable attempt to free murderers and tarnish the settlement enterprise.”
“The release of terrorists in exchange for the dubious privilege of Tzipi Livni to meet with [chief PA negotiator Saeb] Erekat is very serious. With all due respect, stopping the release of murderers is even more important than justifying the presence of Livni in the government,” the statement went on.
Livni’s Hatnua colleague Meir Sheetrit, countered Saturday that the prime minister — pressed by the US to meet at least one of PA President Abbas’s demands at the start of resumed peace talks earlier this summer, had been prevented by Jewish Home from freezing settlement construction and therefore resorted to agreeing to free long-time Palestinian prisoners. Jewish Home “implored him not to freeze settlement construction,” said Sheetrit.
The senior Israeli official said the Americans and Palestinians were aware of Israel’s intentions to build more settlement homes, made clear before talks resumed. The official said that any new construction would take place inside the major blocs Israel would probably keep in any future peace deal. In previous rounds of negotiations, the Palestinians agreed in principle to swap some West Bank land for Israeli territory to allow Israel to annex some settled areas adjacent to its border.
Netanyahu has faced pressure from hawkish ministers to delay or cancel the prisoner releases in the wake of a series of violent incidents in the West Bank in recent weeks, including the killing of two IDF soldiers and an attack that wounded a nine-year-old girl in the settlement of Psagot.
Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon (Likud) also slammed the planned prisoner release, saying it only strengthened terror. ”We’ll see the celebrations in Gaza, in Ramallah, in Nablus. This only strengthens those who seek to harm [us]” he told Army Radio Saturday. ”Any approval of settlement construction should not be linked to these releases,” he added.
Netanyahu has resisted the pressure from the right and plans to release the prisoners on schedule, the prime minister’s representative in the peace talks, attorney Yitzhak Molcho, assured Palestinian and American officials in recent days.
In July, Israel agreed to the four-phase release of 104 prisoners, many of whom were convicted of brutal murders, serving sentences for acts of terror committed before the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993. Twenty-six prisoners were released in the first wave on August 13, just after talks started.
The deal was intended as a sign of good faith ahead of the renewed American-brokered peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.