On prisoners and peace talks

It’s fashionable to say the government is beholden to the far right, but on the prisoner release vote, Netanyahu proved he could get his way with the entire right against him

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, attends the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on Sunday (photo credit: Miri Tzahi//Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, attends the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on Sunday (photo credit: Miri Tzahi//Flash90)

One of the most heart-broken responses to Sunday’s cabinet vote on releasing over 100 terrorists from Israel’s prisons came from a close Netanayhu ally, Ofir Akunis.

It was Akunis — who is deputy minister in charge of government relations with the Knesset — who had the bad luck to find himself standing in April at the podium on the Knesset floor and promising that the government would not release terrorists.

“There is no Israeli decision to release terrorists, and I believe, I hope, that there won’t be pressure on this issue, because it won’t help,” Akunis said in response to a question from MK Orit Strock (Jewish Home), who demanded to know if the government was being pressured by the US or other parties to release prisoners convicted of terrorism. “This government’s policy is not to release terrorists. There won’t be a release of terrorists, not [even] in the context of any sort of gesture.”

On Sunday, three months after that public declaration, Akunis openly said that he felt betrayed by the government in which he serves.

“This is a difficult and sad day,” he said. “The decision to release horrible murderers was a mistake in every sense. I want to apologize to the bereaved families who understood from my response to the Knesset three months ago that there was no intention to do this. I am sorry from the bottom of my heart that staffers involved in the negotiations misled me.”

Akunis feels personally betrayed, but he’s only one of a long list of politicians who were surprised at the release – and at the ease with which Netanyahu passed it through the cabinet, with 13 ministers from four out of five coalition parties voting in favor of the prisoner release, almost twice as many as the seven who voted against.

Even MKs central to the government’s stability and functioning, like Coalition Chairman Yariv Levin, expressed unreserved horror and surprise at the cabinet’s decision.

The government’s decision took “this theater of the absurd to new heights, where Israel surrenders its security in exchange for nothing. Once again we discover that the peace talks are merely an instrument the Palestinians use to extort concessions from Israel. The government has once again fallen into this transparent trap,” he insisted.

Avi Naim, chair of the Forum of Judea and Samaria Regional Council Chairs, a committee of mayors from West Bank Jewish towns, succinctly captured the perplexity on the right when he noted, probably accurately, that “everyone who raised their hand [to vote for the release] knows in their heart that no peace agreement will come from this, and that Israelis will pay for it in blood.”

Even Israel’s top diplomat chastised the government, this time by comparing it with other states.

“Experience has taught us that every prisoner release encourages terror and has never brought peace,” lamented Deputy Foreign Minister Ze’ev Elkin, another close Netanyahu confidante. “All the democracies in the world have learned this lesson. They don’t release terrorists even in exchange for captured citizens. They won’t even negotiate.” All but Israel.

The surprise on the right is justified. Time and again, the right has heard – usually from the left – that the current government is in the thrall of the far-right, of the settlers, of the opponents of peace.

“This is the time to think about leaving the government,” Jewish Home MK Yoni Chetboun declared Sunday morning at a demonstration outside the Prime Minister’s Office against the prisoner release. “The Jewish Home party has no place in an Israeli government that would release terrorists guilty of murder. We are turning our backs on bereaved families. It’s a surrender to terror.”

Chetboun’s declaration seemed a natural next step for the baffled right, but in fact demonstrated how hollow their rhetoric had become. Jewish Home leaders wasted no time assuring coalition officials that they had no intention of leaving the government. Jewish Home chair Naftali Bennett continues his tacit support – or rather, lack of meaningful opposition – to Netanyahu’s policy of giving US-brokered peace talks a chance.

Netanyahu’s success surprised the right. But it should also have surprised the left.

“The extreme right has become significantly stronger in the third Netanyahu government, following the elimination of Likud’s liberal wing,” an editorial in the left-wing daily Haaretz warned ominously just as the new government got underway in March. “The right wing will enjoy a clear majority in the cabinet and in the ministries in charge of planning and construction in the West Bank; defense, housing, interior and economy have been given over to the settlers and their political allies.”

That takeover by pro-settler politicians “will thwart the two-state solution, worsen Israel’s international isolation and perpetuate the conflict. Lip service on ‘renewing talks’ will not conceal the harmful facts on the ground,” Haaretz insisted.

That theory, shared by the left and far-right, according to which the pro-settlement right controls the government, has just faced its first real-world test. In the midst of all the rage and vituperation the right could summon — indeed, when the right was joined by 85% of the Israeli public, according to an Yisrael Hayom poll last week — the cabinet, led by Netanyahu, nevertheless voted to release terrorists in order to facilitate peace talks with the Palestinians. The theory lost and Netanyahu won.

It is impossible to say with any certainty whether the new peace talks have any chance of success, whether the Palestinian Authority is capable of negotiating and then delivering on an agreement, whether Netanyahu’s maximum offer can meet the Palestinians’ minimum demands, whether either or both sides will negotiate in good faith. The good money, most Israelis still believe, is on the skeptics.

Netanyahu hasn’t proven he wants peace, or that he can achieve it. But with the prisoner release he has proven one thing that the world was keenly interesting in knowing: that as Israel enters into peace talks, Netanyahu runs the show in Jerusalem.

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