Lieberman Walked Out of Shalit Deal Debate, Leaving 'No' Vote Behind

Haaretz goes behind the scenes of the stormy cabinet meeting that led to approval of the deal to secure the release of captive IDF soldier Gilad Shalit.

Three government ministers voted against the Gilad Shalit swap on Tuesday night – Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Vice Prime Minister Moshe Yaalon and National Infrastructure Minister Uzi Landau.

Lieberman barely spoke at the meeting, apart from two questions he presented to Shin Bet security service chief Yoram Cohen. After the security chiefs finished their presentations and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave his opening speech, Lieberman left the conference room. Before he left – approximately two hours before the meeting was adjourned – he left a note with Cabinet Secretary Zvi Hauser saying he is voting against the deal.

Lieberman and Ya'alon - Tomer Appelbaum
Tomer Appelbaum

Lieberman refused to elaborate on his reasons for opposing the swap. Sources who work closely with him said that his stance is not new, and that he has 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," the sources said, "he allowed the Yisrael Beiteinu ministers to vote as they see fit."

Contrary to Lieberman, Minister Yaalon explained his opposition during the meeting, saying the deal will encourage terrorism and strengthen Hamas. "These terrorists were learning in prison, and they will go back to terrorism just like after the Gibril Deal," he said. "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 rightwing coalition members – recounted his days as a prisoner in the former Soviet Union. "I know how things look from the wrong side of the bars," he said, and called on the ministers to approve the deal.

Culture and Sports Minister Limor Livnat reminisced over the Tenenbaum deal during Ariel Sharon's term. "I remember the vote," she said. "There were many ministers who felt then that the deal was wrong. Now, I think there is an opposite feeling, that this deal is right."

Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Shalom Simhon said that despite reservations, "I feel more comfortable after hearing the Shin Bet chief." National Infrastructure Minister Uzi Landau said that "all the logical reasoning suggests one should vote against the deal, but I still support it," he said.

'Israel must free Jewish terrorists,' minister told Netanyahu

Aside from debating whether or not to vote for a prisoner exchange deal that would set Gilad Shalit free, several members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's cabinet offered several lines of action Israel could take following the deal's execution.

Standing head and shoulders above most were Interior Minister Eli Yishai of Shas and his party member Meshulam Nahari, who said Israel should consider releasing Jewish terrorists who carried out attacks against 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."

Other offers that came during Tuesday's dramatic cabinet meeting were to change Israeli law as to allow sentencing terrorists who had murdered Israeli citizens to death, thus increasing the legal deterrence against such acts.

Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor vehemently opposed the offer, saying: "I don't think we should be rushing toward extreme ideas."

Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who pushed for the completion of the prisoner swap deal in recent weeks, urged the establishment of a set government policy to deal with future abductions of Israelis.

"We need to change the rules from the ground up," Barak said, indicating that the "Americans, the British, and others formed regulations ahead of such eventualities, and I am sure some of them could fit us."

"I have formed a committee in the past, headed by [former Supreme Court] Justice [Meir] Shamgar, that recommended guidelines and it will be appropriate to deal with that issue the day after the deal is completed," Barak said.

Likud's Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz, who had also backed the Shalit deal, agreed with Barak, saying "such a dynamic must be prevented in the future."

"The kidnappings work against us as efficiently as tanks or missiles. See how many terrorists we are freeing now," Katz said.

Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Yaalon, who voted against the deal, also agreed that set rules need to be established in order to deal with future abductions.

'We have no choice', Netanyahu told ministers of Shalit deal

Netanyahu's quest to persuade cabinet ministers to accept the deal to
secure the release of captive Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit continued behind closed doors on Tuesday. Once the television cameras left the conference room, Netanyahu opened with a fiery monologue, saying he had no choice but to go through with the deal.

For more than four hours on Tuesday night, Israel's government ministers sat to discuss the deal that would secure the release of Gilad Shalit - until it was finally approved by a large majority. During that dramatic meeting, all of Israel's security chiefs and almost all of the government ministers voiced their opinions.

"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 ministers.

"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," he said.

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 "in any case the deal is not the same as the original one drafted by Hamas."

In his closing statement, just moments before the ministers voted, Netanyahu claimed that the draft of the deal that his government received was better than the deal that was brought before Olmert's government two-and-a-half years ago.

"At the beginning I wanted to change a lot of things on 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 Uzi Landau: Agreement 'great victory for terrorism'

From the start, it was obvious that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was backed by all of the security chiefs. The person who played a key role in convincing the ministers was Shin Bet security service director Yoram Cohen.

Cohen, who had been debating for a long time whether to support the deal or not, finally 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 with past negotiations – both under former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and under 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 of the government ministers asked Cohen if he recommended approving the deal. Cohen answered yes, a response that 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 and sided with the Shin Bet chief, but the officials most supportive of Cohen were his colleagues – IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. 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 activities, 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 am in charge of combatants and I'm committed to them," he said. "It is 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."