Prisoner release spat could end in violence, Hatnua warns

MKs Amir Peretz and Meir Sheetrit blame harsh rhetoric for weekend spitting attack on MK Elazar Stern; Jewish Home MK denies connection

MKs Amram Mitzna, left, Meir Sheetrit, center, and Amir Peretz at a Hatnua meeting in June. (photo credit:  Miriam Alster/Flash90)
MKs Amram Mitzna, left, Meir Sheetrit, center, and Amir Peretz at a Hatnua meeting in June. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

A minister warned Sunday that a row between the Jewish Home and Hatnua parties over an impending prisoner release could deteriorate to the point of murder, after a Knesset member was spit on outside a synagogue Friday night.

Environmental Protection Minister Amir Peretz, from the center-left Hatnua party, decried the nationalist Jewish Home party’s attacks on the impending Palestinian prisoner release and especially the verbal assault on Hatnua’s leader Tzipi Livni, in which they blamed her for the release.

The two parties traded barbs over the weekend over a planned ministerial vote to release prisoners as part of ongoing peace talks.

A ministerial committee headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is set on Sunday to approve the names of 25 Palestinian prisoners to go free on Tuesday. The planned releases constitute the second phase of a four-stage prisoner release deal, agreed upon as part of ongoing US-brokered peace efforts between Israel and the Palestinians. The releases will be accompanied by the announcement of new plans for West Bank settlement construction, a senior Israeli official said.

The religious-nationalist Jewish Home coalition party has bitterly attacked the planned prisoner releases in recent days, and on Sunday is set to submit legislation to prevent such releases; opposed by Netanyahu, the legislation has no prospect of success.

Although the prisoner release deal was approved by Netanyahu, Jewish Home, led by Economics minister Naftali Bennett, blamed Livni, the justice minister and chief negotiator with the Palestinians, for it.

However, Peretz said that Jewish Home could have prevented the release by agreeing to a halt in settlement building, but is instead trying to paper over its own involvement in the government move.

“What is happening in front of our eyes is the biggest dance of hypocrisy I’ve ever seen by a party,” Peretz, a former defense minister, told Army Radio. “On the one hand it sits within the government, and on the other hand it takes advantage of the convenience of being in the government to fulfill its objectives; participates in the vote on the prisoner release, and prevents any way of discussing another option.”

Peretz also decried what he called incitement from Jewish Home aimed at Livni, which he said was linked to a spitting attack on MK Elazar Stern, also of Hatnua, on Friday.

“The Jewish Home has turned into the messianic and radical home,” Peretz continued. “The incitement and fervor are serious matters and I hope that the prime minister will bring the Jewish Home to order. Such militancy initially leads to spitting, and can also reach murder.”

Stern was spit on by a 17-year-old as he left the synagogue in his home town of Mitzpe Hoshaya. Stern said that the youth said to him, “This is for Rabbi Dov Lior,” during the incident. Lior is a prominent national-religious rabbi whom Stern denounced last week for saying that Ethiopians in Israel were not really Jews.

Jewish Home MK Ayelet Shaked said Sunday that Peretz was peddling lies, pointing out that the spitting incident had nothing to do with the ongoing political war of words.

But Peretz wasn’t the only party member to tie the spitting incident to the Jewish Home attacks on Hatnua.

“The spitting in the face of Gen. Stern came from the mouth of [Jewish Home head] Naftali Bennett and his friends, as did the false incitement,” a source close to Livni told Yedioth Ahronoth. “Bennett needs to be careful with his words and think carefully about their consequences.”

MK Meir Sheetrit of Hatnua also warned about the potential for violence. “This is incitement, and incitement can very quickly turn into something else. We have already seen this script. They need to be careful in the way they express themselves,” he said, according to Yedioth.

Shaked told Channel 2 Saturday that Jewish Home had made its opposition clear to Netanyahu. “We told the prime minister that we are against the release of terrorists. It’s immoral. No other country in the world does it,” she said, adding incredulously, “We release terrorists as a gesture [to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas] and he promotes a boycott against us?”

Jewish Home also made plain it was not appeased by news of further homes to be built in the settlements.

“The attempt to link the release of the murderers to construction tenders is manipulative and morally wrong,” the party said in a statement released Thursday. “It would be better if the prime minister does not release murderers and does not build. This looks like a despicable attempt to free murderers and tarnish the settlement enterprise.”

“The release of terrorists in exchange for the dubious privilege of Tzipi Livni to meet with [chief PA negotiator Saeb] Erekat is very serious. With all due respect, stopping the release of murderers is even more important than justifying the presence of Livni in the government,” the statement went on.

A senior Israeli official said Thursday that the Americans and Palestinians were aware of Israel’s intentions to build more settlement homes, which were made clear before talks resumed. The official said that any new construction would take place inside the major blocs Israel would probably keep in any future peace deal. In previous rounds of negotiations, the Palestinians agreed in principle to swap some West Bank land for Israeli territory to allow Israel to annex some settled areas adjacent to its border.

Netanyahu has faced pressure from hawkish ministers to delay or cancel the prisoner releases in the wake of a series of violent incidents in the West Bank in recent weeks, including the killing of two IDF soldiers and an attack that wounded a 9-year-old girl in the settlement of Psagot.

Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon (Likud) slammed the planned prisoner release, saying it only strengthened terror.

“We’ll see the celebrations in Gaza, in Ramallah, in Nablus. This only strengthens those who seek to harm [us]” he told Army Radio Saturday. “Any approval of settlement construction should not be linked to these releases.”

Netanyahu plans to release the prisoners on schedule despite the pressure from the right, the prime minister’s representative in the peace talks, attorney Yitzhak Molcho, assured Palestinian and American officials in recent days.

In July, Israel agreed to the four-phase release of 104 prisoners, many of whom were convicted of brutal murders, serving sentences for acts of terror committed before the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993. Twenty-six prisoners were released in the first wave on August 13, just after talks started.

The deal was intended as a sign of good faith ahead of the renewed American-brokered peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, which began in August.

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