The government is expected to vote Sunday on a process to allow for the release
of 104 Palestinian prisoners as a goodwill gesture during what Prime Minister
Binyamin Netanyahu said would be at least a nine-month negotiation period with
The vote comes in advance of the renewal of direct
talks, possibly as early as Tuesday in Washington with Justice Minister Tzipi
Livni and special envoy Yitzhak Molho.
The government is also expected to
vote on a referendum bill for any territorial exchange that would be part of a
final-status agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.
Saturday night published an open letter to the Israeli public explaining the
importance of a peace deal and why he believed it was necessary to release
Palestinian prisoners – most of whom have blood on their hands and are serving
life sentences – in spite of the high emotional cost.
“This is an
incredibly difficult decision. It is painful for the bereaved families, it is
painful for the whole nation of Israel and it is very painful for me,” Netanyahu
“In the next nine months, we will consider whether there is a
Palestinian element opposite us that, like us, truly wants to end the conflict
between us. Such a conclusion will be possible only under conditions that will
ensure security for Israel’s citizens and ensure our vital national interests.
If we succeed in achieving such a peace agreement, I will submit it to a
“Such a fateful decision cannot be made by a close vote in
the Knesset. Every citizen must be allowed to directly influence our future and
our fate on such a crucial issue,” Netanyahu said.
With respect to the
prisoner release, the government on Sunday will appoint a four-member ministerial
committee to oversee the peace process, that will include Netanyahu, Livni,
Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and Public Security Minister Yitzhak
That committee will have the authority to make decisions
with regard to the peace process, including the release of prisoners.
is understood that a vote for that committee is a vote to release the
Likud ministers said Netanyahu had pressured them to support
the prisoner release. But Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz told The
he intended to vote against it.
“I cannot vote to free
terrorist murderers, harm bereaved families, and encourage terror,” Katz
“I made my view very clear a week ago, so there is no point in
pressuring me.” Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett announced that his party’s
ministers would vote against the prisoner release. A source close to a Yisrael
Beytenu minister said the party’s ministers would be permitted by their leader,
Avigdor Liberman, to vote according to their conscience.
Danny Danon and Avi Wortzman called upon ministers to vote against the proposal,
which Wortzman called “dangerous and senseless.”
Land of Israel Caucus
co-chairmen Yariv Levin (Likud) and Orit Struck (Bayit Yehudi) called the
proposal “a shameful surrender to terror.”
“Israel is surrendering yet
again,” Levin and Struck said in a joint statement. “The pace in which the
government is backtracking from its declared positions before the talks have
begun is very worrying.”
In a letter, addressed to Likud ministers, Danon
wrote, “This sets a future standard for Israel of farreaching compromises in the
face of ridiculous requests from the other side.”
Danon added, “I call on
you to vote against releasing prisoners, but in favor of negotiations without
The deputy defense minister stated that there is a
“consensus” among Likud members against “the crazy release of dozens of
terrorists with the blood of hundreds of Israelis on their hands.”
ended his letter with a call for the release of Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard
from prison in the United States.
Meretz leader Zehava Gal-On called upon
Netanyahu not to approve the referendum bill, because it would raise questions
about whether he honestly wants to advance the peace process and indicate that
he lacks a mandate to commit to future evacuations of territories.
a few months ago the nation chose its representatives in the government and the
Knesset to run the country and make fateful decisions,” Gal-On said. “Bennett
and Netanyahu are trying to change the rules of the game and shift
responsibility to the nation.”
Netanyahu defended the prisoner release in
his letter to the nation.
“From time to time, prime ministers are called
on to make decisions that go against public opinion – when the matter is
important for the country.
“In order to make decisions that are supported
by the public, there is no need for prime ministers.
“At the present
time, it seems to me that it is very important for the State of Israel to enter
into a diplomatic process. This is important both in order to exhaust the chance
of ending the conflict with the Palestinians and in order to establish Israel’s
position in the complex international reality around us.
changes in our region – in Egypt, Syria and in Iran – not only place challenges
before the State of Israel but they also create considerable opportunities for
“For these reasons, I believe that it is important for the State of
Israel to enter a diplomatic process that will continue for at least nine months
– in order to check if it is possible to reach an agreement with the
Palestinians during this time.
“But even with all of the importance that
I ascribe to the diplomatic process, I was not prepared to accept the
Palestinians’ demands for withdrawals and [building] freezes as preconditions
for entering negotiations.
“Neither was I prepared to accept their demand
to release Palestinian prisoners before the start of negotiations. I did agree
to release 104 Palestinians in stages after the start of the negotiations and in
accordance with the circumstances of their progress,” Netanyahu said.
explained that the release of prisoners “collides with the incomparably
important value of justice.”
“It is a clear injustice when depraved
people, even if most of them have sat in prison for over 20 years as in this
case, are released before they have finished serving their
“The decision is difficult for me, seven-fold because my
family and I personally know the price of bereavement stemming from terrorism. I
know the pain very well. I have lived with it every day for the past 37
“The fact that previous Israeli governments have released over
10,000 terrorists does not make it easier for me today, and did not make it
easier when I decided to bring back Gilad Schalit,” Netanyahu said.
added that politicians, however, have to make these difficult
“People in positions of leadership need to choose between
complex choices and sometimes the necessary decision is especially difficult
when most of the public opposes it.”
US Secretary of State John Kerry
phoned Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Friday and informed him
of the Israeli government’s decision to release Palestinian
Abbas’s spokesman, Nabil Abu Rudaineh, said that Kerry told
the PA president that US President Barack Obama’s administration fully supports
the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
During a meeting with
Palestinian journalists in Ramallah, Abbas was quoted as saying that
Palestinians should expect “good news” on Sunday regarding the release of
Abbas refused to elaborate, but told the
journalists: “Follow the Israeli media on Sunday and you will hear good news on
Abbas reiterated his commitment to a two-state solution
and said the Palestinians were keen on the success of the peace process.