The ministerial committee tasked with overseeing the release of Palestinian prisoners approved the release of an additional 26 prisoners this week who have been incarcerated for at least 19 years. The release, constituting the second stage of a plan to free 104 prisoners, was to take place overnight between Tuesday and Wednesday, 48 hours after the list of their names was made public.
In August, as part of the resumption of long-stalled peace talks with the Palestinians, Israel pledged to free the inmates in four stages as negotiations resumed after a near three-year hiatus following a dispute over Jewish settlement construction in land Palestinians seek for a future state.
In a statement, the ministerial committee stressed that "if any of the prisoners resume hostile activity, they will be returned to prison to serve out the remainder of their sentence."
On Monday, the Knesset Internal Affairs and Environment Committee convened to prepare for the upcoming release. At the meeting, committee chairwoman Miri Regev (Likud Beytenu) voiced her opposition, saying "the release of prisoners will lead to more terror."
"This is an example of cowardice and weakness on behalf of the government. No normal country releases murderers. In return, we got rockets fired into Ashkelon, a tunnel from Egypt and murders of Israelis. Why do we need to give anything in exchange for negotiations?" Regev said, adding at the conclusion of the meeting that "the equation of releasing prisoners in exchange for talks needs to be eliminated."
The meeting was attended by representatives of the Israel Prisons Service as well as members of bereaved families, whose loved ones were killed by the terrorists slated for release.
Meir Indor, the head of the Almagor Terror Victims association, said that the families had been "doubly wronged. First by the release of the prisoners, and second by the failure to notify the families." Some of the families said that they had learned of the planned release from the media, rather than being informed by the relevant authorities.
"I am not proposing the establishment of a department to notify families -- I am proposing to not release prisoners," Indor told the committee.
On Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leveled harsh criticism against his coalition partner, Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett, who proposed legislating a law that would prohibit the government from releasing prisoners convicted of security-related crimes against Jews. Netanyahu told Likud ministers that "Bennett is trying to use deplorable means to circumvent the government."
Hours after Netanyahu spoke, a heated disagreement erupted between ministers belonging to Likud, Yesh Atid and Hatnuah on the one hand, and the ministers of Habayit Hayehudi, including Bennett, and those of Yisrael Beytenu on the other side. The Ministerial Committee for Legislation decided to reject a bill submitted by Habayit Hayehudi's Orit Struck -- aiming to limit the government's freedom to release prisoners -- with the former camp, comprising eight ministers, voting against, and the five Habayit Hayehudi and Yisrael Beytenu ministers voting in favor.
Prior to the vote, harsh barbs were traded. One of the ministers present recounted that "it was clear that Naftali Bennett was trying to capitalize on the situation for public political gain while he is in fact a part of the coalition and is just as accountable for its decisions as any other minister."
Cabinet Secretary Avichai Mendelblit, who participated in the committee meeting, told the ministers that "you all knew what you were voting on: releasing murderous terrorists in four separate stages. When a coalition makes a decision, it obligates all its ministers -- even those who opposed -- and you must stand behind cabinet decisions and respect them."
Mendelblit added that if the ministers were to approve the bill, it would cause great harm to Israel's relations with the U.S. "Don't make Israel's word become untrustworthy," he warned.
Interior Minister Gideon Sa'ar (Likud) then said that "the release of prisoners is a loathsome thing in every respect, but over the last few weeks and months, lines have been crossed in terms of the principle of common responsibility. We see and understand exactly what is happening here: this is an attempt to maximize political gain and to initiate political manipulations within parties and between parties. This bill is part of a political campaign against the coalition, which is coming from within the coalition."
Sa'ar personally attacked Bennett, saying, "It is despicable for a minister to attend the funeral of a soldier who was killed by a terrorist and speak out against a decision made by the coalition, of which he is a member, to release prisoners. It is a cynical, immoral thing to do, especially when he knows that there is no correlation between the murder [of the soldier] and the prisoners who were released."
"You are harming the government and trying to paint the government as making offhanded decisions," Sa'ar went on to say, "as though there are no other serious considerations at play here."
Senior Citizens Minister Uri Orbach (Habayit Hayehudi) then remarked that "in the past, before a decision was made to release prisoners, the heavens would tremble. Nowadays, the release of prisoners has become an inconsequential act -- a kind of currency used in the maintenance of negotiations. It is our duty to warn against that."
To this, Sa'ar replied that "if you think that the release of prisoners is so terrible, why don't you resign from the coalition?"
"I will consider it, and decline," Orbach said in response. "Just as others won't resign if the peace process breaks down."
Culture and Sport Minister Limor Livnat (Likud) then chimed in and said that "the moment the government makes a decision you can no longer attack it, or the ministers."
Yesh Atid Chairman Yair Lapid then said, "You are infuriating. It was the hardest thing in the world to vote in favor of the release of prisoners in the government vote. The only purpose of this bill before us is to make us vote on this a second time. I am choosing my words carefully: This is an extremely irresponsible proposal, designed to capitalize on public relations."
Hatnuah Chairwoman Tzipi Livni then joined the debate and said that "it is time for you to understand that the government operates in accordance with the public's best interest, not with the directives of the settler rabbis. This government is cultivating a diplomatic process, to advance Israel's national and security interests. The responsibility to abide by these interests, as well as the shared responsibility for every decision made, is shared by all members of the government, even the sanctimonious ones trying to distance themselves from the decisions that they were a part of making, after the fact. They were a part of this decision be it through their silence, or their agreement in exchange of [settlement] construction."
At the conclusion of the committee meeting, Habayit Hayehudi issued a statement saying that they intended to appeal the committee's decision. The Likud and Hatnuah ministers, however, stressed that there would be no further discussion of the matter.
Habayit Hayehudi, meanwhile, singled out Sa'ar, saying in a statement that "as part of Sa'ar's hysterical tongue-lashing against the Habayit Hayehudi bill he failed to notice that he was criticizing his own fellow party members who are signatories of the bill."
Housing Minister Uri Ariel (Habayit Hayehudi) added that "the ministerial vote against the bill is a disgrace. Livni has received another length of rope with which she can play make-believe with the Palestinians."
Setting a red line
Speaking with Israel Hayom on Sunday, two senior Likud minister remarked that the agreement to release prisoners was made between the prime minister and U.S. President Barack Obama, and in so doing, Netanyahu neutralized the Palestinian demands to base the negotiations on 1967 borders and to freeze settlement construction.
Lapid also remarked on the controversy, saying that "anyone who cites the recent wave of security related incidents as a reason not to release Palestinian prisoners is basically saying that the Israeli government should let terror organizations dictate its policy."
On his Facebook page, Bennett wrote that "the bill was designed to prevent the release of prisoners in the future. The aim is to set a red line, once and for all. The State of Israel has been making a fool of itself for 20 years, making deals to release terrorists and it is time to put and end to all that. The release of terrorists is not moral, it weakens Israel, endangers the lives of its citizens, and we will continue to fight it in every democratic way possible."
To this, Livni responded: "Bennett's priority is to build more homes in the territories, so we had to release prisoners."