Wednesday April 16, 2014
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16.04.2014
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Coalition tensions apparent over release of Palestinian prisoners
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Dan Margalit

Populist opposition

Interior Minister Gideon Sa'ar was right when he attacked Senior Citizens Minister Uri Orbach and Housing and Construction Minister Uri Ariel on Sunday, telling them that they were free to leave the cabinet if they could not come to terms with the release of Palestinian terrorists as per a government resolution. "So quit," he teased them, saying this would prove they were serious.

This was the climax of the crash course in manners the cabinet members were attending; the coalition agreements lack any provisions for such political civility. You can voice your opposition all you want, but once a cabinet resolution is passed, all cabinet members must own up to it.

As someone who objected in real time to the release of terrorists for Hezbollah-held Elhanan Tennenbaum (in 2004) and for the abducted soldier Gilad Schalit (in 2011) -- the public felt no sympathy for the former and loved the latter -- I cannot relate to the outrageous populism Habayit Hayehudi and some of the Likud ministers have engaged in. Their campaign has been waged on two fronts. The first is their opposition to the release of another group of Palestinian prisoners as per a prior Israeli pledge, which should not be renounced; the second is their attempt to legislate a law that would prevent the release of terrorists as a means of promoting a comprehensive peace deal but would allow prisoner swaps. Such a measure would be disproportionate and thus, unwarranted.

This all boils down to public relations. Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Lieberman is angry at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu because the latter refused to help him unseat Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat in last week's municipal election; that is why Lieberman's ministers made a sudden decision to vote with Habayit Hayehudi on the bill. Politics -- just another dose of refined politics.

Habayit Hayehudi Chairman Naftali Bennett and Orbach have had the time of their lives serving in the cabinet, but instead of taking responsibility for the government's decisions, they keep attacking it: be it during a funeral for a soldier who was killed in Hebron and whose death had nothing to do with the prisoner release, or when they lambaste Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and say she wants to release terrorists so that she could have better talks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

The truth of the matter is that the talks Livni and special envoy Isaac Molho have held with the Palestinians have been supervised by the prime minister himself. Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon, who has also been ignoring his duty to act with civility toward fellow coalition members, was at least honest about the tactics at play when he said that Livni was just the most convenient target for Habayit Hayehudi and that the real target should be Netanyahu himself.

Former Chief Justice Meir Shamgar was the head of panel tasked with providing the executive branch with a template it could use for future prisoner exchanges. Bennett and Ariel are right in demanding that Netanyahu publish Shamgar's findings. His report should serve as a government's road map. Each government should decide whether to embrace it or shelve it.

But a government must be able to decide things on its own, it must not be hamstrung by the Shamgar report if unforeseen circumstances arise. Likewise, it should feel free to follow the path outlined by Shamgar when it considers it appropriate. Ultimately, all citizens want the government to make its own calculus on how many prisoners it is willing to release. If it decides against the release of prisoners, it should not use a report from the immediate or distant past as cover. Whatever happens, a law that would govern this process is a bad idea; it would tie the government's hands. Only an insecure government would look for a law to serve as a casus belli.

This all goes to show that politics have carried the day. This is just an effort on the part of Habayit Hayehudi to assuage disgruntled voters. Just what message did the party want to convey by sending the bill for a vote on the very day that Israel was to release the second group of prisoners, as it had pledged to do? This was propaganda, not statecraft.

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