The cabinet met late into Sunday afternoon to debate releasing security prisoners as part of the restart of peace talks with the Palestinians, but a majority for the controversial move was guaranteed with the announcement that ministers Gideon Sa’ar (Likud) and Sofa Landver (Yisrael Beytenu) would support it.
Earlier, Education Minister Shai Piron (Yesh Atid) and Homefront Defense Minister Gilad Erdan (Likud) unexpectedly announced that they planned to vote against the motion, though Piron’s party colleagues were subsequently trying to change his mind.
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 for the release of 104 mainly Palestinian prisoners jailed since before the 1993 Oslo Accords. Netanyahu invited Shin Bet head Yoram Cohen to brief the ministers on the security ramifications of approving the release, reiterating that decisions regarding the release of Arab-Israeli prisoners would be brought before the cabinet and that any “provocation” would lead to the halt of further planned releases.
Crucially, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said he would back the move “with a heavy heart,” though he would oppose freeing pre-Oslo Israeli Arab convicts since, he said, the Palestinian leadership did not represent them. 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 some ministers who are hesitatant to vote with Netanyahu.
“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, stressing that “this is not an easy day for me.” He added: “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.”
The cabinet subsequently approved a bill mandating a referendum for any accord involving Israel relinquishing sovereign territory.
With Piron wavering, Yesh Atid’s other ministers and Hatnua’s two were planning to vote for the releases. 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.
Sa’ar and Water and Energy Minister Silvan Shalom were set 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.
Firmly 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 murderers and burners of children and women, does not deserve to be called a partner,’ said Bennett.
Bennett 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.
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.
- Israel & the Region
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- Palestinian prisoners
- Benjamin Netanyahu
- prisoner release
- Naftali Bennett
- Ze'ev Elkin
- Danny Danon
- Hatnua party
- Jewish Home party
- Gilad Erdan
- Yuval Steinitz
- Gideon Sa'ar
- Moshe Ya'alon
- Yitzhak Aharonovitch
- Yaakov Peri
- Shelly Yachimovich
- Sofa Landver
- Israeli-Palestinian peace talks