Netanyahu sends message to Bennett on 'necessary' prisoner release

Tensions within coalition rise as Netanyahu rebukes Bennett for speaking out against release of 26 Palestinian prisoners.

bibi oct 28 2013 370 real (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
bibi oct 28 2013 370 real
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Releasing prisoners was a difficult but necessary and responsible decision, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said Monday, as MKs from all of the Knesset’s Zionist parties argued over the issue throughout the day.
“The decision to free prisoners is one of the most difficult I made as prime minister,” Netanyahu said in a Likud Beytenu faction meeting. “This decision was necessary in our current reality. We have to navigate through a complex international arena full of challenges.”
Twenty-six Palestinian security prisoners were transferred Monday to Ofer Prison outside of Jerusalem, ahead of Tuesday’s expected release. The release of the prisoners, who have been incarcerated for at least two decades, is part of a pledge Israel made to the Palestinian Authority this summer to help relaunch the negotiations.
Monday night, thousands gathered outside of Ofer Prison to protest the planned release.
Netanyahu told the Likud Beytenu faction that he feels the pain of families who have to experience “the injustice of scoundrels being freed before serving their full punishment.”
In a thinly veiled message to Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett, the prime minister called on all ministers to behave responsibly and exercise good judgment now that a decision was already made.
Netanyahu’s comments follow days of arguing between Bayit Yehudi and Hatnua over the prisoner release.
A small ministerial committee approved on Sunday night the release, 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.
Five of the prisoners will head to Gaza and 21 to the West Bank. They have all served sentences of 19 to 28 years.
Justice Minister Tzipi Livni accused Bayit Yehudi of “hypocrisy, sanctimoniousness and dirty politics in an attempt to avoid responsibility.”
“In the end, the truth comes to light,” Livni declared. “We will fight for what we believe in, even if we have to do it in the mud.”
Bennett said Bayit Yehudi is facing an “unprecedented attack.”
“The last time I remember seeing such stigmatization was the way Netanyahu was treated during the Oslo Accords,” Bennett stated. “They’re trying to silence us and make us follow the herd. They call us fascists.”
Bennett insisted that “it won’t work; we won’t be silent. We will continue to oppose a Palestinian state in the heart of Israel, and we won’t allow gestures for the right to negotiate for a Palestinian state.”
The Bayit Yehudi leader also thanked Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman and his ministers for voting in favor of the bill meant to prevent future prisoner releases.
Liberman skipped the Likud Beytenu faction meeting, a day after all his party’s ministers had voted for the Bayit Yehudi prisoner release bill. A coalition source said the vote, along with support last week for legislation meant to stop negotiations to split Jerusalem, is a preview of cooperation to come if Likud and Yisrael Beytenu part ways.
Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein warned that prisoners released this week will commit more acts of terror.
“We stood for the principle of negotiations without preconditions before this process began, but this morning the names of arch-terrorists with blood on their hands were already publicized,” Edelstein wrote on Facebook.
The Knesset speaker said the terrorists being released killed “the best of our sons and citizens” – soldiers, teachers, and even a Holocaust survivor.
“The Palestinians’ ‘gesture’ to us came soon enough, and this morning rockets were shot at the South. That’s why we say ‘there is nothing new under the sun,’” he added.
According to Edelstein, “unfortunately, past experience showed us that the day on which we will see headlines stating that one of the released prisoners was involved in a terror attack is not far.”
Labor faction chairman Isaac Herzog pointed out that the debate over prisoner releases highlights tensions within the coalition.
“This is the theater of the absurd. Ministers are arguing, some are almost blaming a minister [Livni] for murder, and the prime minister stays quiet,” Herzog said. “The prime minister is not managing the government. A week after the anniversary of [former prime minister Yitzhak] Rabin’s assassination, the prime minister should say something.”
Opposition leader Shelly Yacimovich (Labor) said of Bayit Yehudi’s protestations that “the extreme Right is trying to stop talks before they make any progress.”
Meretz leader Zehava Gal-On said that “a prisoner release is not about Bennett’s or Livni’s political future. It’s about the fate of negotiations and the future of the State of Israel, and the time has come for Bennett and Livni to stop publicly bickering, which brings them political gain, and start acting.”
Gal-On called the government’s policy of freeing prisoners while building in the West Bank “the leadership of Dr. Bibi and Mr. Netanyahu,” an apparent reference to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
Tovah Lazaroff contributed to this report.