No more than 50 protesters turned up for the demonstration on Sunday in front of the Prime Minister's office, calling on the ministers not to free the 104 Palestinian prisoners held in Israel from the era before the Oslo Accords. The vast majority of demonstrators had crocheted skullcaps, and were identified with the right wing.
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This demonstration, as with the rest of the campaign against freeing the prisoners, was organized by two right-wing organizations, Im Tirtzu and Yisrael Sheli. Both movements are actually the brainchildren of two ministers, Gideon Sa'ar in the case of the former, Naftali Bennett in the case of the latter. It was all too ironic to see both movements protest against their creators.
The Israeli government bumped into reality on Sunday. Like a drunk driver heading for a wall at full speed only to get a grip on himself at the last moment and hit the brakes, most government ministers came to their senses and voted in favor of releasing prisoners in order to enable the renewal of talks with the Palestinians. Hundreds of text messages sent to the ministers' cell phones could not stop the move.
Many Likud ministers understood how high the stakes were. They finally understood what Benjamin Netanyahu comprehended several months ago: the extent to which the stalemate with the Palestinians constitutes a strategic threat to the State of Israel. How it threatens the country’s international legitimacy and its ability to thwart moves in the United Nations or boycott and divestment initiatives in the West. How this stalemate constitutes a serious danger for Israel's economy.
This understanding was best exemplified by Gideon Sa'ar, who until several months ago spoke harshly against the establishment of a Palestinian state. On Sunday, he delivered an emotional monologue about the urgent need to renew talks. The hard-line nationalist sounded like a dove from the political center. Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and opposition leader Shelly Yacimovich would have agreed to 80 percent of his speech. Meretz chairwoman Zahava Gal-On could have approved of half of it.
Swaying the undecided
Sa'ar's speech was instrumental in the government’s decision in favor of the prisoner release, creating a dynamic that swayed unsure cabinet members, such as Education Minister Shay Piron, to ultimately raise their hands in favor of the deal. Sa'ar told the truth to his colleagues in Likud - the party members and the voters - that there simply isn't any other choice.
Sa'ar's message was that if Israel refuses to yield anything, it will eventually lose everything. There won't be defensible borders, or Israeli control in the Holy Basin, or international recognition for the settlement blocs. The danger is that Israel will lose the last of its friends, and end up isolated and outcast.
Not all the ministers have understood the message. The clock stopped ticking in the 1980s for Yair Shamir and Uzi Landau. Naftali Bennett and his ministers are still repressing this understanding, their lack of contact with reality and the Israeli mainstream only too obvious from every word they utter, while ministers Yisrael Katz and Gilad Erdan are probably still affected by a mix of internal political interests and immaturity.
Still, if the process continues, most Likud ministers will soon understand that the occupation simply isn't worth it; that with all their love for Judea and Samaria, the land of settlements and outposts might cause the State of Israel to collapse. As Netanyahu understood, they too will see that Israel's future isn't in Yizhar and Itamar, but rather in Be'er Sheva, Ashdod, Kiryat Shmona and Tel Aviv. The future isn't in the south Hebron hills or Mateh Binyamin, bur rather in London, Paris, Berlin, Dubai, Doha and New York.