Israel’s peace talks with the Palestinians remain mostly shrouded in secrecy, but one thing is certain: The Palestinian prisoner release that paved the way for their resumption is increasing tensions in Israel’s governing coalition.
Israel completed the second stage of the four-part release on Tuesday, setting free 26 prisoners, all of whom had been convicted of murder. The first stage of the prisoner release occurred in August.
The government approved the release in July in a bid to jump-start the peace talks. But the move elicited harsh protests within the ruling coalition as well as on the Israeli street.
After the government announced the second phase of the prisoner release on Sunday, Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, chairman of the Jewish Home party, proposed a law to prohibit any future Palestinian prisoner releases. The cabinet voted 8-5 against the proposal; the opposition included Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
An angry Netanyahu told Likud ministers that Bennett “is trying to use deplorable means to circumvent the government.”
“The decision to release prisoners is one of the toughest decisions that I’ve made as prime minister,” Netanyahu told a meeting of his Likud-Israel Beiteinu faction on Monday, according to reports.
“My heart is with the bereaved families, and the heart hurts. We must navigate a complex international arena.”
An estimated 3,000 demonstrators, among them relatives of the prisoners’ victims, protested the release on Monday night. On Tuesday, a group of relatives unsuccessfully petitioned Israel’s Supreme Court to stop the release.
Tuesday’s release comes as the 3-month-old talks face an uncertain future.
Although U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has insisted on complete confidentiality, Israel’s Channel 2 reported this week that the Palestinian Authority reportedly has demanded that land swaps in the West Bank not exceed 2 percent – a provision Netanyahu’s coalition would likely oppose.
On Sunday, representatives from families in the Almagor Terror Victims Association sent a letter to Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein, asking him to prevent the prisoner release. Weinstein’s deputy, attorney Dina Zilber, responded with a statement saying that freeing prisoners in negotiations “is a clearly political issue in which all of the considerations have been weighed with the highest scrutiny by the executive authorities.”
Almagor Director Meir Indor responded critically to the statement, saying, “The families of the dead should not need to fight the war for their loved ones.”
On Monday, the Knesset Internal Affairs and Environment Committee convened to prepare for the prisoner release. At the meeting, committee chairwoman Miri Regev (Likud-Beiteinu) 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,” she added. “No normal country releases murderers. In return, we got rockets fired into Ashkelon, a tunnel from Egypt and murders of Israelis.”
“Why,” she asked, “do we need to give anything in exchange for negotiations?”
Attorney Yifat Raveh from the Israeli Justice Ministry briefed the committee on the way the bereaved families had been notified.
“Two hours after the list was finalized, the families were contacted through case workers and the representative organization for victims of terror. Not everyone was reached, there were those who had changed their phone numbers and there were also technical problems,” Raveh said.
One bereaved father responded that only seven of the 16 families were notified. Regev added that a “tentative list already existed a week ago.”
“They could have prepared in advance and informed the families in the best possible manner,” Regev said.
Member of Knesset David Tzur (Hatnuah) inquired, “Is there any reason not to release the identities of the prisoners to be released in future stages? The families are in suspense.” Tzur added that he opposed the release of prisoners.
MK Shuli Mualem-Rafaeli (Habayit Hayehudi) said, “It is only in the Jewish state that the murderers of Jews can be released. In another place in the world, everyone would cry out if such a thing happened.”
– JTA, Israel Hayom (via JNS), Jewish Press staff