Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz (Likud) revealed Saturday that prior to the decision to renew peace talks, he had heard Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tell U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry that he could not agree to release Palestinian prisoners without the approval of Habayit Hayehudi Chairman Naftali Bennett.
Speaking on Channel 2's "Meet the Press" about Bennett's vocal opposition to the release of 26 Palestinian prisoners last week, Steinitz said: "Netanyahu told Kerry, 'I cannot give you a final answer as long as I do not have agreement on this process from all members of my coalition. This is a large and significant process, I need to speak to Naftali Bennett.' It was very clear that Netanyahu told Kerry that he would not go forward without a green light from Bennett."
Ahead of Kerry's visit to Israel this week, it appears that the storm surrounding the prisoner release last week demonstrated to the U.S. how sensitive and complex the issue was and the degree of opposition from within the government and Israeli society to the release of more Palestinian prisoners.
Steinitz went on to say: "I understood that we all saw eye-to-eye. No one was excited about the release of terrorists, but it was clear to everyone that a settlement freeze would be even more difficult."
"Prime Minister Netanyahu said things clearly and precisely, [and the words of Bennett and Habayit Hayehudi] were imprecise understatements," he went on to say. "Habayit Hayehudi was in the wrong about the subject. I am sure that at the end of the day, Bennett understands this week that he was mistaken in his delayed opposition to the problematic proceedings. You cannot act in favor while feeling opposed. In any case, after a government decision has been made, you cannot come out against it. I have no doubt that there was agreement to the process. Even if there was a feeling of discomfort shared between all of us, there was an agreement in advance of the process."
Bennett's office responded: "Minister Bennett was among the only ministers to oppose the prisoner release and he voted against the release in the government. With that, when the plan was presented, he clarified that he would oppose but not resign from the coalition." An official from Habayit Hayehudi commented, saying, "Steinitz, who voted in favor of the prisoner release, is better off not preaching to Bennett, who voted against the release."
Meanwhile, Netanyahu was scheduled to meet with Kerry on Tuesday. The two will discuss the next step in the peace talks.
The Palestinian Authority was also preparing for Kerry's visit. A senior official in Ramallah said that "the talks will not stop following continued construction, however, just as in Israel the prisoner release triggered a political and public uproar, this has done the same in the Palestinian streets and political system. These processes only damage the atmosphere of the negotiations."