Netanyahu set to free all pre-Oslo prisoners, says ‘it’s for the good of the country’

Bitter cabinet battle expected Sunday; in public letter, PM writes that leaders are sometimes forced to make difficult and unpopular choices

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/Pool/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/Pool/Flash90)

Amid reports that Israel has reluctantly agreed to release all 100-plus Palestinian and Israeli Arab prisoners held since before the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday night issued an open letter to the public, bracing Israelis for an extremely “difficult decision” that he was taking in defiance of public opinion but “for the good of the country.”

Netanyahu reportedly agreed to release all 104 pre-Oslo prisoners, including 20 or more Israeli Arab citizens, because the Palestinians made clear to US Secretary of State John Kerry that otherwise they would not come to the scheduled resumption of peace talks in Washington on Tuesday.

A vote on the prisoner releases is expected at Sunday’s cabinet meeting, and Netanyahu may have a difficult time winning a majority, Channel 2 news reported on Saturday night. Israel had previously indicated that it would free more than 80 Palestinian prisoners jailed since before the Oslo Accords, but had refused to release the Israeli Arab prisoners. The prisoners are to go free in four phases, the first of which may be in about two weeks, at the conclusion of Ramadan. The Israeli Arab prisoners will be released in the last phase, Channel 2 said.

The prisoners, some of them convicted of major terrorist attacks involving multiple murders, may not all be released into Palestinian territory; some may be sent into exile, Channel 2 said. The Shin Bet security service will make recommendations on this issue. A small ministerial committee is to be appointed on Sunday to oversee the process of releases.

“This is an extremely difficult decision,” Netanyahu wrote in the open letter released on Saturday night. “It pains the bereaved families, 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.”

Netanyahu noted that easy decisions did not require firm leadership. It was the hard ones that required a strong prime minister, he said. “Every now and then prime ministers need to take decisions that fly in the face of public opinion — for the good of the country.”

He added: “Over the next nine months we will come to see whether there is a Palestinian partner who desires the end of the conflict as much as we do. The conflict’s resolution can only be achieved if we are guaranteed security for Israel’s citizens and the protection of our vital national interests.”

Earlier Saturday, Israel Radio reported that Israel had agreed to release 24 Israeli Arab prisoners serving life sentences who were incarcerated before the 1993 Oslo Accords, in addition to the 82 pre-Oslo Palestinian prisoners. The releases would be carried out in phases, the radio report said, in parallel with progress at Israeli-Palestinian peace talks which are set to resume next week.

The Palestinian Authority had long sought the prisoners’ release as a precondition for resuming talks, a demand Israel refused. Israel had feared that the PA would secure the prisoners’ releases, and then walk away from the negotiating table. Hence the phased approach. Netanyahu had long been offering to free several dozen of the pre-Oslo prisoners, many of whom were convicted for terrorist crimes involving multiple murders, but had balked at releasing them all.

As recently as last week, officials in Jerusalem said Israel would release the 82 veteran Palestinian prisoners, gradually, during the negotiations but was refusing to release the Israeli Arab prisoners.

For his part, PA President Mahmoud Abbas, speaking to Arabic media Saturday in an apparent reference to the freeing of the prisoners, said he was expecting “good news” on Sunday.

Kerry announced in Amman on July 19 that a basis for the resumption of negotiations had been worked out and that Israeli and Palestinian negotiators could be expected in Washington within a week or so. However, in the following days Palestinian officials claimed that the framework for the negotiations was not fully resolved — and restated their demands for the release of pre-Oslo Palestinian prisoners and for the use of the pre-1967 lines as the basis for negotiations on a Palestinian state.

Channel 2 quoted an unnamed Western diplomatic source on Saturday night saying Kerry had not written a letter to the PA saying that the talks would be held on the basis of the pre-67 lines or that there would be an Israeli settlement freeze. Some PA officials had claimed the secretary had given Abbas a written commitment to that effect. Hebrew media reported on Friday, however, that Netanyahu would cap new settlement projects to a total of 1,000 new homes, inside existing settlement blocs, for the duration of the negotiations.

An Arab member of Knesset told The Times of Israel on Thursday that Kerry had promised Palestinian officials that negotiations would not resume before Israel agreed to release all the 100-plus pre-Oslo prisoners. He said this group included 21 prisoners who are either Israeli citizens or Jerusalem residents and whom Israel had steadfastly refused to free as a goodwill measure to boost negotiations.

MK Ibrahim Sarsur (Ra’am-Ta’al) said that intense pressure exerted by Palestinian politicians and Arab Israeli members of Knesset succeeded in convincing the Americans to accept the Palestinian precondition of releasing all Palestinian security prisoners sentenced in Israel before the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993. He made the comments after a press conference Thursday that was organized by the Arab Union of Prisoners and Liberated Prisoners, an NGO that deals with incarcerated Palestinians and their families within Israel.

“An hour ago, Kerry asked the Palestinian side to send him the list [of prisoners] after reviewing it. He promised that he will not summon the sides to the first meeting of negotiations before granting the Palestinians Israel’s agreement to release the full list, not part of the list,” Sarsur told The Times of Israel following the press event.

Israeli Minister of Intelligence and International Relations Yuval Steinitz told Israel Radio on July 20 that Israel would release prisoners involved in “serious cases” as part of the renewed talks, but did not specify an exact number of prisoners. Israeli media later cited 82 as the number to be released in four phases, as negotiations progress. That number reportedly excluded 14 prisoners with Israeli citizenship and 7 Jerusalem residents.

Out of a total of roughly 5,000 Palestinians currently serving time in Israeli jails on security convictions, 140 hold Israeli citizenship. Fourteen of those prisoners were sentenced before the Oslo accords, signed between Israel and the PLO.

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