After PM's plea to Israeli people, cabinet to vote on freeing Palestinian prisoners

In open letter to the public, Netanyahu says decision to free prisoners with blood on their hands was 'incredibly difficult' and 'painful for the whole nation of Israel'; cabinet also set to vote on bill that would require referendum on any peace deal.

Bereaved families against release of jailed Palestinians 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Bereaved families against release of jailed Palestinians 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
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 Palestinians.
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.
Netanyahu on 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 wrote.
“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 referendum.
“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 Aharonovitch.
That committee will have the authority to make decisions with regard to the peace process, including the release of prisoners.
It is understood that a vote for that committee is a vote to release the prisoners.
Likud ministers said Netanyahu had pressured them to support the prisoner release. But Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz told The Jerusalem Post he intended to vote against it.
“I cannot vote to free terrorist murderers, harm bereaved families, and encourage terror,” Katz said.
“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.
Deputy ministers 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 preconditions.”
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.”
Danon 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.
“Just 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.
“The major 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 us.
“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.
He 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 sentences.
“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 years.
“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.
He added that politicians, however, have to make these difficult decisions.
“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 prisoners.
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 Palestinian prisoners.
Abbas refused to elaborate, but told the journalists: “Follow the Israeli media on Sunday and you will hear good news on the prisoners.”
Abbas reiterated his commitment to a two-state solution and said the Palestinians were keen on the success of the peace process.