Prisoner release all but guaranteed to pass in cabinet

The right is fuming over the move to free terrorists who murdered Israelis, but the arithmetic shows Netanyahu has the votes

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

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads a weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/Pool/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads a weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/Pool/Flash90)

The cabinet is slated to vote Sunday morning on the release of over 100 Palestinian and Arab Israeli prisoners jailed before the 1993 Oslo Accords, many of whom were convicted of brutal murders and terror attacks. The release has the support of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has already promised US Secretary of State John Kerry that it will go through.

The decision, formally announced by Netanyahu on Saturday in a public letter, drew condemnation and vehement opposition on the right.

“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 tell 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 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.

Yisrael Beytenu’s four ministers were granted the right to vote as they see fit by party leader Avigdor Liberman. While Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch is expected to vote in favor — he is slated to serve on the cabinet committee that will oversee the release — it is likely that Agriculture Minister Yair Shamir and Tourism Minister Uzi Landau will vote against.

The final tally demonstrates the strength of Netanyahu’s position, and the overwhelming likelihood that the release will go through. In a 22-member cabinet, Netanyahu appears to have more than the required 11 votes — Yesh Atid’s five, Hatnua’s two, Netanyahu’s own vote, Steinitz, Livnat, Saar, Erdan, Shalom and Ya’alon. With Aharonovitch, he may reach 15 votes in favor, drawn from four out of five coalition parties.

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.”

While he’ll almost certainly have the votes necessary to push the prisoner release through the cabinet, Netanyahu is hoping for more — for precisely the sort of broad support described above that would make the painful, controversial decision easier to stomach politically, and perhaps also personally.

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