In his quest to persuade the cabinet to accept the Gilad Shalit deal, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his ministers Tuesday night he had no choice but to go through with the deal and solve a problem inherited from the previous government.
For more than four hours that evening, the cabinet discussed the deal until Netanyahu achieved a large majority. During the meeting, all of Israel's security chiefs and almost every minister spoke.
"It is true that there are no promises that the prisoners released will not return to terror, but they are already leading terror activities from their prison cells," Netanyahu told the cabinet.
"There are some countries that don't hold negotiations with kidnappers, and we can discuss this policy going forward, but in this particular case, this is something that we inherited from the previous government, and we do not have a choice."
Netanyahu did not mention former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert by name but placed the blame on him in a roundabout way. "This is a reality that was forced upon us from the moment the former government engaged in negotiations with Hamas," Netanyahu said.
"We could not pay the price, but if we want Gilad to come home, there is no other choice," the prime minister said, adding that "in any case the deal is not the same as the original one drafted by Hamas."
In his closing statement, Netanyahu claimed that the draft of the deal was better than the one brought before Olmert's government two and a half years ago.
"At the beginning I wanted to change a lot of things in the original draft, and I tried to turn things around," Netanyahu said. "In the end, we arrived at a better result than we did two years ago."
Minister: 'Free Jewish terrorists'
Meanwhile, Interior Minister Eli Yishai and fellow Shas MK Meshulam Nahari said Israel should consider releasing Jewish terrorists who carried out attacks on Palestinians.
"It's the right thing to do as part of the balances in Israel's society," Yishai said, adding that such a move would not "undo the releasing of hundreds of [Palestinian] prisoners, but it may sweeten the bitter pill."
Defense Minister Ehud Barak said the government should set a clear policy in case Israelis are abducted in the future.
"We need to change the rules from the ground up," Barak said, adding that the "Americans, the British and others crafted regulations ahead of such eventualities, and I'm sure some of them could fit us."
Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz, who also backed the Shalit deal, agreed with Barak, saying "such a dynamic must be prevented in the future." According to Katz, "The kidnappings work against us as efficiently as tanks or missiles. See how many terrorists we are freeing now."
Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya'alon, who voted against the deal, also agreed that rules need to be established to deal with future abductions.
Landau: 'A great victory for terrorism'
From the start, it was clear that Netanyahu was backed by every security chief. The person who played a key role in convincing the ministers was the head of the Shin Bet security service, Yoram Cohen.
Cohen, who had considered for a long time whether to support the deal, made his mind up a few weeks ago and joined the head of Israel's negotiating team David Meidan in the last two rounds of talks in Cairo.
Cohen told the ministers that compared to past negotiations - both under Olmert and Netanyahu - the Shin Bet had softened its stance.
"In the past, we didn't support the deal," Cohen said. He described the Shin Bet's efforts to minimize the security risks of releasing Palestinian prisoners. "It was like an equalizer in a stereo system," he said. "We inherited the framework of the deal and the game was with the tones - who would be deported, who would go back home and would be released with restrictions."
One minister asked Cohen if he recommended approving the deal. Cohen's affirmative answer angered National Infrastructure Minister Uzi Landau. "You are a public servant," he told Cohen. "Your job is to provide data, not to recommend."
A few ministers responded to Landau by siding with the Shin Bet chief, but the officials most supportive of Cohen were his colleagues - IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz and Mossad chief Tamir Pardo.
"I send soldiers to battle, and it is my duty to share my professional position on the matter," Gantz said. "The deal is the only way. It is possible that we will encounter some of those released in future military operations, but according to our assessments we think releasing the prisoners is acceptable in terms of security."
Pardo also reacted strongly to Landau's statements. "I'm in charge of combatants and I'm committed to them," he said. "It's my duty to say whether I am for or against, and the government will decide what it will. In this case, I am for the deal."
Lieberman votes no
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman barely spoke at the meeting, apart from two questions to the Shin Bet's Cohen. After the security chiefs finished their presentations and Netanyahu gave his opening speech, Lieberman left the room. Before he left - around two hours before the meeting ended - he left a note with Cabinet Secretary Zvi Hauser saying he would vote against the deal.
Lieberman declined to say why he opposed the swap. Sources who work closely with him said his stance was not new and that he had conveyed it a number of times to Shalit's parents. Nevertheless, the sources said Lieberman decided not to speak against the deal during the meeting because he didn't want to appear to be launching a campaign against the agreement. "At the end of the day, he allowed the Yisrael Beiteinu ministers to vote as they saw fit," a source said.
But Ya'alon explained his opposition during the meeting, saying the deal would encourage terrorism and strengthen Hamas. "These terrorists were learning in prison, and they will go back to terrorism .... I personally know some of those who are to be released - these are bomb makers and unit operators. The present calm in Judea and Samaria is about to change."
Yet most of the ministers supported the deal. Public Diplomacy Minister Yuli Edelstein - considered one of the most right-wing coalition members - recounted his days as a prisoner in the Soviet Union. "I know how things look from the wrong side of the bars," he said, calling on the ministers to approve the deal.
Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Shalom Simhon said that despite reservations, "I feel more comfortable after hearing the Shin Bet chief." Landau said that "all the logical reasoning suggests one should vote against the deal, but I still support it."
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