Dani Dayan, the former head of the Yesha settlements council, lashed out at minister Yuval Steinitz Saturday for stating that Israel would release Palestinian prisoners in peace talks, calling the move “immoral and unethical.”
Steinitz’s announcement about the Palestinian prisoners came on the heels of US Secretary of State John Kerry’s Friday declaration that Israel and the Palestinians agreed to resume negotiations without preconditions, after a three-year breakdown in direct talks.
Steinitz, who is also the minister of intelligence and international relations, told Israel Radio Saturday morning that Israel would release Palestinian prisoners but claimed the move was not akin to Israel giving into Palestinian preconditions — a position Israel has categorically rejected. He added that a number of the Palestinian prisoners to be released were “serious” cases, but that a large portion of them had already served many years. He didn’t specify how many prisoners Israel would release.
Speaking to Israel Radio several hours later, Dayan called Steinitz’s announcement a grave mistake. He said Israel’s decision to free “the most serious killers” among the Palestinian terrorists was “immoral and unethical.”
“I wonder what else has been offered to Abu Mazen [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas]?” he asked, adding that right-wing politicians from the Likud and Jewish Home parties should demand from the government a “full and immediate” list of the concessions it is intending to make.
During his interview, Steinitz stressed that the decision was in line with the government’s approach all along, meaning that it intends to free Palestinian prisoners in phases and only do so as talks are resumed, not before. He also said Israel was not bound to a settlement freeze as a precondition for the resumption of negotiations.
Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon told reporters Saturday that Israel “must learn from past mistakes and not release terrorists with blood on their hands as a goodwill gesture or a prize.”
“I trust the prime minister, who knows that talking about a return to the ’67 lines is out of the question. Ripping thousands of Israelis from their homes, like we did in the disengagement from Gaza, is a wrong that must not be repeated,” said Danon, who is associated with the hawkish branch of the Likud.
Fellow hawkish Likud MK Miri Regev demanded that Netanyahu present the principles under which negotiations were to be resumed to the Likud leadership for approval.
“In light of the reports regarding the return to the 1967 lines and the release of Palestinian prisoners as a basis for negotiations, it is necessary for the prime minister to expose the truth,” said Regev.
Regev added that she was looking forward to hearing what concessions the Palestinian leadership was making to advance peace, because she didn’t believe the Palestinians had a genuine desire for peace.
On Friday, Kerry assured the Palestinians that Israel would free some 350 prisoners gradually in the coming months. The prisoners would include some 100 men convicted of terrorist crimes committed before the Oslo interim peace accords were signed in 1993. Israel had balked at freeing these prisoners in the past because many were convicted in deadly attacks.
In contrast to the Likud and Jewish Home, which were expected to have issues with the government’s intended concessions to the Palestinians, other parties in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition and in the opposition came out in staunch support of Kerry’s announcement.
Opposition leader Shelly Yachimovich said she was hopeful about the relaunching of direct talks. She called on Netanyahu to clearly announce his approval of Kerry’s initiative and express his willingness to achieve an agreement with the Palestinians.
Netanyahu’s office, however, said Friday it would not immediately comment on Kerry’s announcement.
“The resumption of talks is the result of an American effort, but first and foremost it is our issue,” Yachimovich said. “We should not just settle for a renewal of negotiations, but do everything possible to work towards real accords,” she added
“I hope that Prime Minister Netanyahu, who declared loud and clear that he supports the two-state solution, will make the necessary decisions.”
Last month, Yachimovich said she would back Netanyahu by considering to join the coalition if such a step were necessary to advance talks for a political peace agreement with the Palestinians.
Yachimovich’s guarantee of a parliamentary “safety net” was meant as an assurance that despite the proliferation in Netanyahu‘s government of hardliners who oppose a two-state solution, any peace initiative presented by the prime minister would gain the Knesset’s approval.
Justice Minister Tzipi Livni (Hatnua) addressed Kerry’s announcement as well by saying that “four years of political stalemate” were about to end. She further stated that any agreement would include a clause that guaranteed that, at any rate, the future Israeli state would remain both Jewish and democratic.
“I’m sure with all my heart that this is the right thing for our future, our security, economy, and the values of Israel,” Livni wrote on her official Facebook page. She said that although peace talks were “difficult” they were the “right thing to do.”
Finance Minister Yair Lapid wrote on his Facebook page Saturday that his party, Yesh Atid, fulfilled its promise to jumpstart peace talks.
“To the left, we say: Israel should conduct tough negotiations [with the Palestinians]. We aren’t looking for a happy marriage but for a fair divorce,” he wrote. “And to the right, we say: Let’s separate from the Palestinians, because a bi-national state is the end of Zionism.
MK Ofer Shelah, another member of the Yesh Atid party, also commented on Kerry’s announcement by urging the prime minister “not to waste time” and to take advantage of the “solid majority,” which he claimed wishes to advance a two-state solution.
“The outline of possible agreement has been known for a long time and requires decisive leadership that will lead to it soon,” Shelah said.
Shelah went on to assure Netanyahu that the Yesh Atid party would stand alongside any government that strived for peace.
On Friday, Kerry announced that Israel and the Palestinians have agreed to resume peace talks without preconditions, after a more than a three-year freeze on progress.
At a stormy late-night meeting of their leadership Thursday, Palestinians had balked at dropping a main condition for talks with the Israelis. They demanded a guarantee that negotiations on borders between a Palestinian state and Israel would be based on the cease-fire line that held from 1949 until the 1967 war, when Israel captured the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and east Jerusalem. Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005.
Israel rejected preconditions on the talks, and the split cast a cloud of uncertainty over months of US mediation efforts.
Hoping to push Israelis and Palestinians toward talks, President Barack Obama asked Netanyahu to work with Kerry “to resume negotiations with Palestinians as soon as possible,” according to a statement released by the White House late Thursday.
Previous Israeli governments twice negotiated on the basis of the 1967 lines, but no peace accord was reached. Besides disagreeing over how much land to trade and where, the two sides hit logjams on other key issues, including dividing Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees.
Netanyahu gave a lukewarm endorsement to the idea of a Palestinian state but has not delineated his vision of boundaries, while demanding that the Palestinian recognize Israel as a Jewish state. Palestinians reject that, concerned that it would undermine their claims that millions of refugees and their descendants have the right to return to their original homes, lost in the 1948-49 war surrounding Israel’s creation. Israel has rejected that claim outright.
After their late-night meeting, the Palestinians did not bring up their often-repeated demand that Israel stop building in Jewish settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem before talks could resume. One official said that if Israel accepts the pre-1967 lines as a basis, that would make most of the settlements illegitimate.