An Israeli bill which would bar the release of Palestinian prisoners sentenced to life imprisonment is an impediment to a peace deal, Palestinian Minister for Prisoner Affairs Issa Qaraqe said Sunday.
Speaking to Palestinian media, Qaraqe said the bill, approved on Sunday by a committee of government ministers, dealt a blow to any possible agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. He called the Israeli leadership shortsighted and composed of “gangsters and settlers,” and said that a law such as this would not aid the Israeli government, as there would be no deal with the PA without the release of prisoners from Israeli jails.
According to Israel Radio, Qaraqe’s deputy added that the bill destroyed the dreams of those who believe in peace. Fatah party official Mohammed al-Madani said the bill was the final nail in the coffin of the peace talks that ended last month. He said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pulled the mask of peace from his face.
Earlier on Sunday, seven ministers from the Likud, Yisrael Beytenu and Jewish Home parties voted in favor of the measure, while Health Minister Yael German and Science Minister Yaakov Peri, both of Yesh Atid, and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni (Hatnua) opposed it during a meeting of the Ministerial Committee for Legislation.
The green light means the bill will receive coalition backing, clearing a key hurdle on the way to becoming to a law.
The bill, put forward by Jewish Home MK Ayelet Shaked and Hatnua MK David Tzur, will go next to the Knesset for a first reading, and if it is signed into law, the president will no longer have the ability to pardon convicted criminals who have been sentenced by a judge to a life sentence without parole.
If passed, the measure would hamstring leaders from being able to offer prisoner releases in exchange for political concessions in talks with Palestinians, although it would only apply to a minority of jailed terrorists.
It is not yet clear whether the law applies only to murderers sentenced after the law passes or also to those convicted in the past.
Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, who is the head of the Jewish Home party and has gone as far as threatening to quit the government over recent prisoner releases, hailed the bill’s passage.
“The State of Israel has opened a new chapter in the war against terror and in its moral obligation to bereaved families,” he said. “Years of extortion and wholesale releases of terrorists will stop with the passage of this bill in the Knesset. I congratulate the ministers on their support of the law. The Jewish Home will work in the coming session to pass the bill [into law quickly and without delay].”
Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar (Likud), who voted in favor of the bill, said the measure was long overdue and noted that the bill was about more than just preventing the government from releasing terrorists in negotiations.
“The Shamgar Committee already recommended this in the past,” he said. “This bill does not just apply to terrorists, but to all premeditated murderers. In my opinion, murderers of children also shouldn’t be released.”
“In a country that does not have the death penalty, the importance of a life imprisonment sentence is paramount, and this will also facilitate decision-makers in the future.”
On the other side of the aisle, opposition MK Michal Rozin (Meretz) lambasted the passage of the bill as hypocrisy.
“This is a real farce,” she said. “The prime minister who released dozens of terrorists in various deals, who was the head of the government that chose to release terrorists rather than [freeze settlement construction] now supports a law to prevent the release of terrorists. More proof, one of many, of the inconsistencies and political fickleness of our prime minister.”
The release of convicted murderers became one of the most divisive issues within Netanyahu’s ruling coalition over the past year after he agreed to release over 100 prisoners at the outset of the most recent round of peace talks with the Palestinians.
Nearly 80 prisoners were released over the nine months of negotiations with the Palestinians, including many who had murdered Israelis in attacks over 20 years ago. Numerous right-wing ministers and MKs threatened to quit their posts and withdraw their party from the government ahead of slated fourth and final prisoner release, which Palestinians were demanding include Israeli-Arab terrorists.
Netanyhau delayed the final round indefinitely, demanding that the Palestinians first agree to extend the peace talks past the end of April deadline.
The talks eventually broke down completely after a series of unilateral moves by both sides that culminated in a unity deal between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, which Israel considers a terrorist organization and refuses to negotiate with.