The cabinet voted Sunday night to approve the release of 104 Palestinian prisoners sentenced before the 1993 Oslo accords to restart talks with the Palestinian Authority. The vote came after a 5½-hour cabinet session, which ministers described as rife with "discomfort and pain."
Bereaved families rallied against the measure outside the ministerial session, which began 1½ hours late at 11:30 a.m.
Meanwhile, Likud Central Committee members and Yesha Council activists tried to sway ministers to vote against the deal, mostly by flooding their cellphones with text messages. At a meeting of Likud-Beytenu ministers called by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, tensions swelled; it was still unclear who would vote in favor of the deal and who would dissent.
Unlike Hatnuah, Yesh Atid and Habayit Hayehudi, which all voted unanimously (Yesh Atid and Hatnuah for; Habayit Hayehudi against), Likud-Beytenu ministers were split over the deal. Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett led the opposition.
Netanyahu spoke frankly to Likud ministers, urging them to support the bill despite its controversial nature.
"I don't need any lectures," he said. "I'll remind you of my personal background. My brother was killed while trying to rescue hostages who were kidnapped as a bargaining chip to release terrorists. I was wounded as we stormed the Sabena aircraft, which was hijacked in order to release terrorists. Sometimes greater considerations require us to do very unpopular things. This is the test, for all of you as leaders. We must ward off dangers and exploit our opportunities."
The prime minister's refusal to specify whether Israel was planning to release Israeli Arab prisoners as part of the deal stirred discontent and threatened to torpedo the measure. The cabinet passed the measure, but it was met with mixed reactions.
"My position on releasing terrorists, certainly those with blood on their hands -- I was emphatically opposed and I remain emphatically opposed," Deputy Foreign Minister Zeev Elkin said. "Whoever decided that the first gesture to achieve peace is releasing a murderer should seriously question his value system. We've learned a serious lesson about the Arab leadership's true intentions toward us."
Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon echoed Elkin's opposition.
"These despicable terrorists are going to become the Palestinians stars of summer," he scoffed. "Releasing terrorists hands terror a prize, it damages state strength and deterrence."
On the other hand, opposition leader Shelly Yachimovich called the decision "difficult and painful, first and foremost for the families," but said it wouldn't "damage Israeli strength. Actually, it will facilitate jump-starting negotiations -- which will make Israel stronger."
Science and Technology Minister Yaakov Peri, a former head of the Shin Bet stressed the importance of restarting negotiations.
"As someone who was responsible for the pursuit and imprisonment of many of these murderers, this decision was difficult, heartbreaking, and tragic, because of the bereaved families, but failing to return to the negotiating table would have been worse," he said.
Before the meeting, Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon solemnly supported the deal.
"With a heavy heart. I will oppose the release of Israeli Arab terrorists. Abu Mazen [PA President Mahmoud Abbas] isn't their representative," he said. "I wish we never got to this dilemma, but at this stage, there would be a heavy price for deciding not to start the diplomatic process, it would be our fault, it would jeopardize our strategic connections with the United States and other Western nations -- so, with a heavy heart, I will vote in favor of the resolution."