The cabinet paved the way on Sunday for negotiations with the Palestinians to start informally in Washington on Monday, as it voted 13-7 to approve the talks and empower a ministerial committee to release 104 Palestinian prisoners over the next nine months.
Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who heads the Israeli negotiating team, and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s envoy Yitzhak Molcho left Sunday evening for the US. They were expected to hold a preliminary meeting Monday at US Secretary of State John Kerry’s home with Palestinian negotiators Saeb Erekat and Mohammad Shtayyeh, and then begin the negotiations in earnest on Tuesday.
Kerry phoned Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas Sunday evening to extend a formal invitation to the talks. According to a statement put out by the State Department, the meetings will “serve as an opportunity to develop a procedural work plan for how the parties can proceed with the negotiations in the coming months.”
The decision to approve in principle the release of prisoners – and to set up a ministerial committee empowered to determine when and which prisoners will be released – came at the end of a nearly six-hour, sometimes emotional, cabinet meeting. The seven ministers who voted against the move included Likud ministers Gilad Erdan and Israel Katz, Yisrael Beytenu ministers Yair Shamir and Uzi Landau, and Bayit Yehudi ministers Naftali Bennett, Uri Ariel and Uri Orbach.
Likud ministers Silvan Shalom and Limor Livnat abstained.
Those who voted for the proposal were Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Yuval Steinitz, Moshe Ya’alon and Gideon Sa’ar from the Likud; Sofa Landver and Yitzhak Aharonovitch from Yisrael Beytenu; Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid, Yael German, Yaakov Peri, Shai Piron, and Meir Cohen; and Hatnua’s Tzipi Livni and Amir Peretz.The prisoners
, all incarcerated for attacks that took place prior to the 1993 Oslo Accords, are to be released in four different stages.
The idea behind the gradual release, according to Israeli officials, is to ensure that the Palestinians uphold their commitments during the initial nine months of negotiations not to take unilateral actions during this period against Israel in the UN or at other international forums, and not to immediately walk away from the negotiating table.
Netanyahu, who made phone calls to his ministers on Saturday night to ensure passage of the measure, told the cabinet he did not need to be lectured about the pain or difficulty involved in releasing terrorists with “blood on their hands.”
“I want to remind you of my personal history,” Netanyahu said during the cabinet debate. “My brother was killed commanding a force to release hostages who were being held to negotiate the release of terrorists,” he said, in reference to his brother, Yoni, who was killed in the July 1976 Entebbe raid.
“I was injured in the raid on the Sabena plane [in 1972] that was hijacked in order to release terrorists. I remember entering the plane as bullets whistled around me. I apprehended the terrorist Theresa Halsa. Seven years later she was released during the period of Menachem Begin in a deal that freed terrorists.”
But Netanyahu was not the only one who brought a personal twist to the vote. Shalom, the energy and water minister, got choked up explaining that he would abstain, and mentioning his father – the manager of a bank branch in Beersheba, who was killed during a bank robbery when Shalom was only six years old. Livnat, who also abstained, spoke of her nephew who was killed two years ago in a terrorist attack.
Peri, a former head of the Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet), said that “as someone who was responsible for chasing and arresting many of those murderers, this is a very difficult decision that breaks the heart and is a tragedy for bereaved parents.
But not going back to the negotiation table would be even worse.”
Peri, along with Netanyahu, Ya’alon, Livni, and Aharonovitch, will comprise the ministerial committee that will decide when to release the 104 prisoners.
Netanyahu told the cabinet that any decision to release some 15 Israeli Arabs convicted of pre- Oslo terrorist attacks would have to come back to the cabinet for approval.
Netanyahu began the discussion, during which nearly every minister spoke, saying that this was not an “easy” moment for him.
“It is not easy for the ministers. It is not easy especially for the families, the bereaved families, whose heart I understand,” he said. “But there are moments in which tough decisions must be made for the good of the country and this is one of those moments. I believe that resuming the diplomatic process at this time is important for the State of Israel, both in order to try to bring about an end to the conflict and given the complex reality in our region, especially the security challenges from Syria and Iran.”
Netanyahu said somewhat elliptically that being involved in a diplomatic process will make it much easier for Israel to act – and stop actions – in the area.
Israel, he said, had three interests in re-engaging now with the Palestinians: To try to find a solution to the conflict; to prevent negative trends against Israel in the international arena from gaining steam; and to allow Israel to better prepare to deal with the “challenges and opportunities” in the region.
The main opposition to the move inside the cabinet came from Bennett, who said the prisoner release was a “slippery slope.”
“Once we released a terrorist in return for a soldier, then we released hundreds of terrorists for a soldier, then hundreds of terrorists for a dead soldier,” he said. “Now we are releasing a hundred terrorists for ‘process.’ We are showing the world that for us everything is negotiable.”
According to one participant in the meeting, the key speech was given at the outset of the debate by Sa’ar, the interior minister, who up until then had not given a clear indication of how he would vote.
“It would be easy and popular to vote against,” he said. “But what would happen if all of us, or even half of us, vote against? A negative vote means that Israel rejects the understandings the prime minister reached with the US secretary of state. Negotiations will not begin, and Israel will be blamed, even by its best friends in the world.”
Sa’ar said it was an understatement to say that Israel’s international standing at the present time was “not easy,” and that the release of the prisoners could not be divorced from the greater context of the talks and Israel’s international standing.
In addition to Sa’ar, Netanyahu was assisted in getting the necessary votes by Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman, even though he is not a minister.
Liberman gave the party’s four ministers the right to vote their conscience, and two ministers – Aharonovitch and Landver – voted for, while two others, Shamir and Landau, voted against.
Before the vote, Shin Bet head Yoram Cohen briefed the ministers and said that while the release of the prisoners posed an immediate threat to the country’s security, negotiations with the Palestinians by their very nature lead to a calming of the situation on the ground.
He also related to the chance of recidivism among the released prisoners, saying “the chance of their returning to their evil ways is relatively high. They return to terror as the years pass.”
Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said he would vote in favor of the measure with “a heavy heart,” adding that he was opposed to the release of Israeli-Arab prisoners alongside Palestinian terrorists.
“There’s a heavy price for a decision to release terrorists, from the perspective of justice, law, and deterrence,” he said. “I wish we wouldn’t reach this dilemma, but in the situation that has been created, there will be a heavy price for a decision by us not to enter negotiations.”
In regard to the cabinet’s approval of draft referendum legislation, Netanyahu said, “Any agreement, if it is achieved in negotiations, will be brought as a referendum. It is important that every citizen will directly vote on fateful decisions like these that determine the future of the state.”
The only two ministers to oppose the bill were Livni and Peretz.
The bill, which is to become a Basic Law, will essentially say that any change in the status of territories where Israeli law applies will have to be brought before the country in the form of a referendum after the move passes the government and the Knesset.
The bill does not, however, call for a referendum on an agreement that calls for the transfer of any parts of Judea and Samaria to the Palestinians, although there is some talk now of legislating a bill that would.
Under the bill the cabinet approved on Sunday, for instance, the disengagement from Gaza would not have had to come before the country for approval, nor would any future decision to uproot settlements in the West Bank as part of an accord that did not include altering the status of Jerusalem or involve any “land swap.”
The Palestinian Authority welcomed Israel’s decision and vowed to continue working for the release of all inmates. The PA said Israel was releasing “political prisoners.”
Erekat welcomed the decision, but said it came 14 years too late.
“We will continue working for the release of all our political prisoners,” he said. “The Israeli Cabinet decision is an overdue step towards the implementation of the Sharm Sheikh agreement of 1999, whereby Israel committed to release all the pre-Oslo prisoners.”
Erekat called on Israel to seize the opportunity made by Kerry toward the resumption of negotiations “in order to put an end to decades of occupation and exile, and to start a new stage of justice, freedom and peace for Israel, Palestine and the rest of the region.”
Issa Qaraqi, PA prisoners affairs minister, hailed the Israeli decision as a “big achievement that consolidates just peace in the region.”
Qaraqi said that Sunday’s decision was a “step toward releasing all Palestinian prisoners.”Khaled Abu Toameh and Yaakov Lappin contributed to this report.