Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu expects to pass an as-yet-unfinalized deal to bring home kidnapped IDF soldier Gilad Schalit by a wide margin, sources close to Netanyahu said Monday.
The sources denied reports that Netanyahu intended to try to bypass the cabinet out of concern that he would have trouble passing the deal. They said charges that he would try to approve the agreement undemocratically were baseless.
Most of the 30 cabinet ministers remained silent on Monday about how they intended to vote on the deal because they had not seen the list of prisoners who would be included. Some said their decision would be impacted by the inclusion of former Tanzim leader Marwan Barghouti or the terrorist behind the murder of former minister Rehavam Ze'evi, Ahmad Sa'adat.
Top Likud officials speculated that no more than five ministers would end up voting against the deal. The most likely ministers to vote against it are National Infrastructures Minister Uzi Landau (Israel Beiteinu) and Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz (Likud).
Other possible no votes could come from Vice Premier Moshe Ya'alon (Likud), Minister-without-portfolio Bennie Begin (Likud) and perhaps even Vice Premier Silvan Shalom (Likud) and Science and Technology Minister Daniel Herschkowitz (Habayit Hayehudi).
Steinitz led the opposition to the deal that brought home businessman Elhanan Tannenbaum and the bodies of kidnapped soldiers Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser. Along with Shalom, Steinitz absented himself from a recent vote to release women prisoners in return for a tape of Schalit.
In an interview with the BBC in London, Shalom warned Hamas to stop making demands that it knows will not be accepted, such as releasing Barghouti or Sa'adat.
"We have to finish this story, and in practical terms, I don't see a way out except for a deal," Diaspora Affairs Minister Yuli Edelstein said last month in a quote he said Monday was still relevant.
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman granted Israel Beiteinu ministers the right to vote according to their conscience without enforcing faction discipline, allowing Landau to vote against while Stas Meseznikov, Yitzhak Aharonovich, and Sofa Landver vote in favor.
How Lieberman will vote is unknown, but there is speculation in his party that he would abstain.
Herschkowitz said he was "torn" over how to vote, calling it "an awful dilemma." He said that after seeing the deal, he would consult with rabbis and many other people, and then make a decision that would take into account - but not be based solely on - Jewish law.
Every Shas and Labor minister is expected to vote in favor. Shas mentor Rabbi Ovadia Yosef is expected to issue a ruling ahead of a cabinet vote on the deal.
Shas officials called on Netanyahu on Monday to release Jewish murderers of Arabs at the same time he released the terrorists freed as part of the deal. Likud MK Danny Danon said he would lobby Netanyahu to insist on the United States releasing Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard as a goodwill gesture upon completion of the deal.
"If Netanyahu intends to release hundreds of mega-terrorists, the US, which would endorse the deal, must release Pollard, who has sat in jail more than any terrorist who will be released in the deal," Danon said. "President [Barack] Obama should show good intentions to the Israeli public and not only issue one-sided demands."
Netanyahu faced expected criticism on Monday from the National Union faction and from his brother-in-law, far right activist Hagi Ben-Artzi, who sent him a letter slamming the prospective deal.
"Out of love for Bibi, I tell him: Don't take on your shoulders the responsibility for all the deaths the deal will cause," Ben-Artzi told Army Radio. "You were elected with principles. Go home! Quit rather than make such a deal."
In response to the rumors circling the Knesset regarding a prisoner exchange, the National Union's Knesset faction held a press conference Monday afternoon during which they called on Netanyahu to reveal the findings of the Shamgar Commission. The commission, which was tasked with examining the implications of prisoner exchanges, has never published its findings, but National Union Chairman MK Ya'akov Katz said that he knew that the commission had warned against prisoner swaps.
"Imagine what the outcome of the Second Lebanon War would have been if the Winograd Commission had delivered its findings in advance of the war. How prepared we would have been," he explained. "Now, we have that opportunity with the Shamgar Commission. Netanyahu must reveal the findings before we make any decision to release terrorists, and he must have a debate in the government and in the Knesset before he reaches any conclusion."
MK Uri Ariel emphasized that the government was misleading the public in arguing that there was no other alternative to releasing prisoners. Israel, he said, could put pressure on Hamas through restricting the privileges of Palestinian security prisoners held in Israel, or through limiting Gaza's power supply or water supply, both of which are provided by Israel.
"What the prime minister and defense minister are doing is simply caving in to public pressure," said Ariel, arguing that the role of Israel's leadership was to provide "real bravery and leadership."
MK Aryeh Eldad cited Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) statistics showing that 30-50% of released terrorists eventually return to terror, and accused the current government of crossing "red lines that even [former prime minister Ehud] Olmert was not willing to cross."
Eldad, who is his faction's representative on the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, complained that in the course of Monday's briefing with National Security Adviser Uzi Arad, he discovered that the National Security Council "was not asked and did not submit an opinion regarding the impact of the release of terrorists" as a result of any possible deal for Schalit's release.