“In six months, either you’ll be out or we will,” Environmental Protection Minister Amir Peretz (Hatnuah) said to his colleague, Economy Minister Naftali Bennett (Habayit Hayehudi), on Sunday, when they met in the foyer of the cabinet room.
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Witnessing the exchange, Home Front Minister Gilad Erdan (Likud) said, with his usual cynicism, “Maybe both of you will be out?”
The atmosphere inside the cabinet room was much heavier. None of the ministers enjoyed voting in favor of a wholesale release of murderers of Jews. Some of the ministers said that Netanyahu hated every moment; he seemed to be suffering. But he, more than most of his colleagues, was very well aware of the high price that Israel would have paid in the international, legal and economic arenas had the voting results been different. Incidentally, the settlers would have paid the most painful price, but we’ll talk about them later.
The scenario of a defeat for Netanyahu was never on the cards. His partner in Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu, minister-in-exile Avigdor Lieberman, made things easier for him by allowing his four ministers to vote freely. Two voted in favor. Even Bennett, the principal opponent of the release, expressed admiration for Netanyahu’s accomplishments in the negotiations that preceded the announcement that peace talks would resume and empathized with him as the one with whom the buck stopped. It must also be acknowledged that it was easy for the seven who voted against the release to follow their hearts, knowing, as they did, that, in the end, the decision would be approved. They could have it both ways.
Netanyahu acted cleverly by combining the issue of the prisoners with the negotiations. It would have been easier for several Likud ministers to vote no, had they been asked to vote only about the prisoners. In the event, Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar voted in favor (although Netanyahu had asked him only to abstain), while Energy and Water Resources Minister Silvan Shalom and Culture and Sports Minister Limor Livnat abstained.
So, on the one hand, Netanyahu should be grateful to the ministers who saved him from colossal humiliation and embarrassment. On the other, the split among the Likud ministers in the vote must be a warning to him. If most of the ministers of his own party do not vote with him on an issue that is emotionally difficult but not actually strategic (three in favor, two opposed and two abstentions), how will they act when the core issues, with all their weightiness — Jerusalem, the borders, the refugees, the evacuation of settlements — are on the table?
For all practical purposes, the right-wing fired the opening shot of its campaign against the peace process on Sunday. The Likud ministers were shocked at the force of the settlers’ criticism, which took the form of hundreds of invective-filled, threatening text messages that flooded their cellular telephones.
“If I said a text message arrived every second, I wouldn’t be exaggerating,” one minister said. “The settlers should have thanked Netanyahu, instead of wishing him an unnatural death. After all, if he had chosen to give the Palestinians a construction freeze, he would not have had to release so many prisoners and would have gotten the world’s applause. Instead of hotheads from the settlements sighing with relief and contenting themselves with a reasonable protest, they went out of their minds and raged as if possessed.”
With all the sorrow of this issue, the man is right. If the government had said “Nyet” to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, the Palestinians would have sped off in September to the United Nations and to the international court. Europe would have accelerated its anti-settlement sanctions and the scenario in which a settler is branded a criminal and is unable to travel abroad would not be all that far-fetched.
As long as the talks are under way, the burden on Israel will be lighter, not heavier.
On Sunday, the settlers were saved from themselves. It will be interesting to see if and when a fair-minded person is found among them who will dare to admit it.