PM adds Peri to panel on prisoner releases to ensure majority

PM adds Peri to panel on prisoner releases to ensure majority

Addition of Yesh Atid minister to inner group aims to avert future squabbles; protesters camp out opposite PMO as cabinet meets to approve release of long-term Palestinian terror convicts

Former Knesset Minister Yaakov Peri, a former head of the Shin Bet. (Photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash 90)
Former Knesset Minister Yaakov Peri, a former head of the Shin Bet. (Photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash 90)

Minister of Science and Technology Yaakov Peri was appointed Sunday to the inner cabinet committee set up to oversee the release of security prisoners as part of the restart of peace talks with the Palestinians.

Peri, a former Shin Bet head who belongs to the centrist Yesh Atid party, will join Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyau, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch on the committee that will oversee implementation of the government decision, expected to pass Sunday, to release 104 Palestinian and Arab Israeli prisoners jailed since before the 1993 Oslo Accords.

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

Dozens of protesters, among them family members of Israelis killed in terror attacks, camped out opposite the Prime Minister’s Office Sunday morning, holding photos of terror victims and shouting at the ministers convening inside not to free murderers.

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

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.”

It seemed likely that the list of 104 names, submitted by the Palestinian Authority for the Israeli cabinet vote, would include 14 Arab Israelis and seven Jerusalemites or only Palestinian prisoners. A Channel 2 news report indicated it would, Hebrew news website Ynet published a list including the Israelis and Jerusalemites, while Haaretz claimed that the discrepancy between the original list of 82 names and the new list of 104 could be explained by a Palestinian insistence on freeing 22 prisoners jailed after the signing of the Oslo accords on September 13, 1993, but before the start of the agreement’s implementation.

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 falls apart and doesn’t stand up to pressure at the hard 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.

The decision also drew condemnation and vehement opposition from right-wing politicians.

“You kill terrorists, you don’t free them,” Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett said.

“Experience has taught us that every prisoner release encourages terror, and has never brought peace. It tells the next generation of terrorists that someone will work to release them. 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,” said Deputy Foreign Minister Ze’ev Elkin, reflecting the views of many other Likud MKs, including Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon and coalition chairman Yariv Levin.

But none of that opposition has the power to reverse Netanyahu’s decision: A Times of Israel tally of the cabinet arithmetic shows that with 11 of the 22 ministers expected to vote for the prisoner’s release, the prime minister’s majority is all but assured.

Yesh Atid’s five 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 for Intelligence, International Relations and Strategic Affairs Yuval Steinitz and most likely also Culture and Sport Minister Limor Livnat.

Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar, Communications Minister Gilad Erdan 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 American-brokered peace talks. More to the point, none of them would welcome a fight with Netanyahu as they scramble to hold on to their positions in the Likud list.

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.

On the “no” side are the Jewish Home’s three ministers — Bennett, Housing Minister Uri Ariel and Pensioners Affairs Minister Uri Orbach — and Likud’s Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz. Katz said on Sunday morning that the prisoner releases were “a mistake.”

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

The formation of the inner committee will bypass the need for further discussion on the matter, along with the political grandstanding that goes with it, in the full cabinet.

Elhanan Miller contributed to this report

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