Cabinet majority on prisoner release safe, but shrinking

Vote postponed as Netanyahu tries to pressure Likud ministers; in surprise move, Shai Piron says he’ll vote against; terror victims’ families hold protest outside PMO

Israel's ministers attend the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister offices in Jerusalem, on Sunday, July 28 (photo credit: Kobi Gideon / GPO/Flash90)
Israel's ministers attend the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister offices in Jerusalem, on Sunday, July 28 (photo credit: Kobi Gideon / GPO/Flash90)

Just moments before they were to step into the cabinet meeting to vote on releasing security prisoners as part of the restart of peace talks with the Palestinians, Education Minister Shai Piron and Homefront Defense Minister Gilad Erdan announced that they planned to vote against the motion.

Though the decision by Yesh Atid member Piron and prime minister loyalist Erdan came as a surprise, it will likely not be enough to turn the tide in the vote on approving the release of 104 Palestinian and Arab Israeli prisoners jailed since before the 1993 Oslo Accords.

Prime Minister Benjamin 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, reiterating that any decision regarding the release of Arab-Israeli prisoners would be brought before the cabinet and that any “provocation” would lead to the halt of further releases.

“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. “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.”

As the tally currently stands, Yesh Atid’s four other ministers and Hatnua’s two are planning to vote for the measure. In the Likud, Netanyahu will obviously vote in favor, as will those ministers who are politically dependent on Netanyahu for their positions, including Minister of Intelligence, International Relations and Strategic Affairs Yuval Steinitz and most likely also Culture and Sport Minister Limor Livnat.

Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar and Water and Energy Minister Silvan Shalom are thought to support the release, or at least to be willing to grudgingly vote in favor in order to permit Netanyahu to move ahead with the American-brokered peace talks.

Significantly, two separate sources confirmed to The Times of Israel on Saturday night that Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon is expected to vote in favor. Ya’alon has opposed prisoner releases in the past, and his security credentials — he is a former chief of staff of the IDF — may ease the worries of many ministers who are hesitating to vote with Netanyahu.

Already on the “no” side are the Jewish Home’s three ministers — party head Naftali Bennett, Housing Minister Uri Ariel and Pensioners Affairs Minister Uri Orbach — and Likud’s Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz. Katz on Sunday morning called the prisoner releases “a mistake.”

Yisrael Beytenu’s four ministers were granted the right to vote as they see fit by party leader Avigdor Liberman. While Internal Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch is expected to vote in favor, it is likely that Agriculture Minister Yair Shamir and Tourism Minister Uzi Landau will vote against.

While waiting for the meeting to begin, 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 murdrerers and burners of children and women, does not deserve to be called a partner,’ said Bennet.

Bennet 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.

Relatives of Israelis killed in terror attacks hold up signs as they demonstrate outside the prime minister's office as the Cabinet votes on Netanyahu's proposal to free 104 Palestinian prisoners asa good will gesture to the Palestinians on Sunday, July 28 (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Relatives of Israelis killed in terror attacks hold up signs as they demonstrate outside the prime minister’s office as the Cabinet votes on Netanyahu’s proposal to free 104 Palestinian prisoners asa good will gesture to the Palestinians on Sunday, July 28 (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Finance Minister Yair 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.

A new appointment that Netanyahu hopes will prevent future cabinet squabbles was announced Sunday. Minister of Science and Technology Yaakov Peri will be joining the inner cabinet committee set up to select which prisoners will go free and oversee the implementation. Peri, a former Shin Bet head who belongs to the centrist Yesh Atid party, will join Netanyau, Ya’alon, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Aharonovitch on the committee.

The addition of Peri is meant to ensure Netanyahu a majority in the event that Ya’alon and Aharonovitch were to decide to torpedo aspects of the deal.

Opposition leader Shelly Yachimovich on Sunday urged the ministers to vote in favor of the releases. “It is a difficult and painful decision, first and foremost to the victim’s 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.”

Netanyahu reportedly promised US Secretary of State John Kerry that the decision to release the 104 long-term prisoners would go through. On Friday, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas told the Palestinian public that it could expect a “pleasant surprise” on Sunday.

The prisoners are set to be freed in four phases over the next nine months, as Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, set to resume in Washington on Tuesday, progress.

On Saturday, Netanyahu called the decision “extremely difficult,” 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 contributed to this report.

read more:
Never miss breaking news on Israel
Get notifications to stay updated
You're subscribed