Netanyahu: Prisoner release one of ‘toughest’ decisions as PM

Bennett and Livni continue spat over plan; all 26 inmates moved to Ofer Prison ahead of their release

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads the weekly Cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, Sunday, October 27, 2013 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/pool/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads the weekly Cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, Sunday, October 27, 2013 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/pool/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the decision to release 26 Palestinian prisoners one of the most agonizing of his career Monday, a day before Israel was set to free the inmates in the framework of negotiations with the Palestinian Authority.

“The decision to release prisoners is one of the toughest decisions that I’ve taken as prime minister,” Netanyahu told a Likud-Beytenu faction meeting Monday. “I am certain that all the prime ministers who made this decision before me agonized over it as well, due to the injustice of villains being released before they serve the full term of their sentences. My heart is with the bereaved families, and it pains me. This decision is a necessity given the reality in which we live.”

The inmates were transferred Monday to Ofer Prison, near Ramallah, from five Israeli prisons ahead of their release.

“We are forced to navigate an international arena that is complicated; it is not simple, it is complicated, it is full of challenges, and it requires us to take into consideration a number of factors for the good of the State of Israel,” Netanyahu continued.

“From the moment the decision was made in the government, all of its members must act responsibly, with deliberation, and with a long-term perspective,” Netanyahu added, in apparent criticism of ministers from Economy Minister Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home party and MK Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu who voted against the prisoner release.

“We cannot dismiss the strategic meaning that gives us space to maneuver for the security of the State of Israel. We will continue to lead Israel in a level-headed manner,” he added.

The planned release constitutes the second phase of a four-phase prisoner release deal, agreed to as part of the talks that restarted in July. Israel released a first group of prisoners in August.

At a Jewish Home faction meeting Monday, party head Bennett decried the verbal attacks on the party for opposing the impending release. “We have found ourselves under attack over the past day,” he said, “but we opposed a Palestinian state and the release of terrorists before the elections, and we will continue to oppose a Palestinian state and release of terrorists now as well.

“The goal is to silence us and tame us. If, God forbid, someone thinks a Palestinian state is a mistake, he is called a right-winger, extremist, fascist, and violent. But it doesn’t matter — we will not be silenced. We have clear positions and we are proud of them.”

Bennett compared the attacks against him to those directed at Netanyahu during the 1990s when he was a vocal critic of the Oslo peace process.

At Hatnua’s faction meeting, members criticized the Jewish Home, which has sought to place the blame for the release in the lap of Hatnua’s party chair, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who is leading Israel’s negotiations with the Palestinians. “I have reached a conclusion in the past week,” said Livni, “that hypocrisy, self-righteousness, dirty maneuvers and attempts to shirk responsibility don’t work.”

“What the Jewish Home is doing is 100 percent incitement. I recommend that everyone remember where those weeds sprouted from back then,” said Hatnua MK Amram Mitzna, ostensibly referring to the assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. “We must view these things with the utmost severity.”

Criticism of the release was also sounded in some of Monday’s committee meetings. Likud MK Miri Regev, chairwoman of the Internal Affairs and Environment Committee, called the decision a sign of “cowardice and weakness on the part of the government. No normal country frees murderers, and in exchange we received a rocket on Ashkelon, a tunnel from Egypt, and the murder of Israelis.”

The Israel Prison Service late Sunday night published the names of 26 Palestinian prisoners set to be released over the next 48 hours as part of a deal to keep the US-brokered Israeli-Palestinian peace talks on course. All are convicted murderers.

Six of the inmates have been imprisoned for just under 30 years. All but two were imprisoned for murders committed before the signing of the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords. A government statement said earlier that 21 of the inmates were from the West Bank and five were from the Gaza Strip.

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