Israel is set to release 26 Palestinian prisoners this week who have been incarcerated for at least two decades, as part of a pledge it made to the Palestinian Authority this summer to help relaunch the nine-month negotiation process.
Right-wing members of the government who opposed the release, including the Bayit Yehudi and Yisrael Beytenu parties, set off an angry debate throughout the day, but failed in their attempt to pass legislation to block such moves in the future.
The heated ministerial debate on releasing prisoners raised tensions within the coalition, with Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar (Likud) telling Bayit Yehudi: “If you don’t like it, you can resign [from the government].”
“When [Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett] stands at a soldier’s funeral and speaks out against government decisions, that is the most grave thing a minister can do. That is moral depravity,” Sa’ar added.
After the political storm, which raged throughout the day, a small ministerial committee approved on Sunday night the second such release of prisoners, as part of a four-stage process that will let 104 Palestinian prisoners leave jail.
Prisoners were also freed in the first stage, that was carried out on August 26.
The relevant bereaved families will be notified of the decision, and then the names of the prisoners will be posted on Israel’s prison services website.
A 48-hour objection period must pass before they can be freed.
Five of the prisoners will head to Gaza and 21 to the West Bank. They have all served sentences of 19 to 28 years.
The approval committee for the release included Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch and Science and Technology Minister Yaakov Peri. Their debate was centered over who would be released, as the decision with regard to the release itself had already been made in July.
Earlier in the day, a bill sponsored by the Bayit Yehudi party to ban future Palestinian prisoner releases failed to pass the Ministerial Committee on Legislation by an 8-5 vote.
Construction and Housing Minister Uri Ariel (Bayit Yehudi) said, “It was shameful that ministers opposed the legislation.
In Bayit Yehudi, we oppose and will continue to oppose the release of prisoners.”
He attacked Livni, who is in charge of Israel’s negotiations with the Palestinians, saying, “Today Livni was given additional rope to continue playing at imaginary negotiations with the Palestinians.”
“This is a sad day for the fight against terror in Israel,” the Bayit Yehudi party said in a statement it released after the vote, which it plans to appeal. “We will continue to fight with all our strength against the release of prisoners. We’re amazed and sorry that that the Likud ministers didn’t support the legislation that would have ended the release of murders.”
During the debate, Finance Minister Yair Lapid expressed a sense of personal betrayal, telling Bayit Yehudi that it is “unfriendly” of them to “force” ministers to vote for a prisoner release again and again, alluding to accusations that prisoners are being released because Bennett’s party would not agree to a settlement construction freeze.
After it was over, Livni said of the vote, “It was made clear once again today that this government, as opposed to one of its member parties, is acting out of the nation’s interest and not that of cynical partisan interests or according to the instructions of [settler] rabbis.”
“This government is advancing a diplomatic process that is in Israel’s national and security interests,” she continued. “The responsibility to act in accordance with these interests as well as the shared responsibility for decisions that were taken [by the government], is incumbent on every member of the government, even those who in retrospect are trying to shirk from them.”
Bennett took to Facebook to write: “After this week, there are supposed to be two additional prisoner releases.
As a minister, I take responsibility for it. Today, a bill was voted on that could have prevented the government from doing this again, in the future, without any connection to the current prisoner release and negotiations with the Palestinians.
The purpose was to set a red line, once and for all.”
According to Bennett, Israel is degrading itself by freeing terrorists.
“Releasing terrorists is immoral, weakens Israel and endangers Israeli citizens,” he concluded. “We will continue to fight it in every democratic way possible.”
When the Ministerial Committee on Legislation votes were tallied, the ministers from Likud, Yesh Atid and Hatnua who opposed the legislation and supported further prisoner releases included: Lapid, Sa’ar, Livni, Peri, Yuval Steinitz, Limor Livnat, Gilad Erdan and Yael German.
Those who supported the legislation to ban Palestinian prisoner releases included ministers from the Bayit Yehudi and Yisrael Beytenu parties such as: Aharonovitch, Uri Orbach, Uri Ariel, Sofa Landver and Yair Shamir.
The Bayit Yehudi legislation was proposed by MK Orit Struck and coalition chairman MK Yariv Levin on behalf of the Land for Israel lobby in the Knesset.