Israeli Ministers Approve Release of 26 Palestinian Prisoners for Peace Talks

Habayit Hayehudi bill to foil release causes fissures in coalition, as parties form unexpected alliances.

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The ministerial committee that oversees the release of security prisoners approved the release of 26 Palestinian prisoners on Sunday, the second group of four to be released as part of the agreement to renew negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

All of the prisoners in question were involved in terror attacks that killed Israeli citizens. The Prime Minister’s Office stated that all of the prisoners slated for release were involved in attacks before the Oslo Accords were signed, and all served between 17 and 28 years in prison.

Twenty one of the prisoners released are from the West Bank, and five are from the Gaza Strip. The list of the 26 prisoners’ names will be released Sunday evening on the Israel Prison Service’s website, only after the bereaved families of the terror victims are notified, as per their request.

The actual release will take place within 48 hours of the publication of the list of prisoners.

The Prime Minister’s Office also stated that the ministerial committee determined that should any of the prisoners resume terrorist activities, they would be arrested and serve the remainder of their original sentence.

Government tensions

The committee's decision was made after the government rejected a bill put forth by right-wing party Habayit Hayehudi, which sought to ban the release of imprisoned terrorists as part of peace negotiations.

The bill, which was voted down earlier Sunday by the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, was aimed at preventing the planned release of 25 Palestinian prisoners this week as part of the negotiations led by Justice Minister Tzipi Livni.

Habayit Hayehudi accused Livni of improperly delaying the earlier vote, which occurred only hours before the special committee's vote.

“Releasing terrorists in exchange for the dubious privilege of having Tzipi Livni meet with [Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb] Erekat is extremely serious,” the office of Habayit Hayehudi chairman Naftali Bennett said in a statement earlier Sunday.

“With all due respect, stopping the release of murderers is even more important than justifying Livni’s presence in the cabinet.”

“Democracy includes bringing to a vote even bills that don’t suit Ms. Livni,” who heads the committee, the party said in a statement.

MK Yoni Chetboun of Habayit Hayehudi also singled out Livni. “Better for Tzipi Livni to be out of the coalition than for Israelis' security to be endangered,” he said in a statement Saturday night.

This week’s scheduled release will be the second of four stages after the cabinet approved in July the release of 104 Palestinians imprisoned for at least 20 years. The first stage took place in August.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu applied substantial pressure on coalition ministers to oppose the bill. Ministers of Likud, Yesh Atid and Hatnuah all did, while ministers of Habayit Hayehudi and Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu voted in its favor.

Finance Minister Yair Lapid and Interior Minister Gideon Sa'ar harshly criticized Habayit Hayehudi for proposing the bill.

Habayit Hayehudi stated it would appeal the bill's rejection. "This is a sad day for the fight against terror in Israel," a statement released by the party read. "We will continue to fight the release of terrorists with all our force. We are dismayed and surprised that ministers of the Likud declined to support a proposal that would put an end to freeing murderers. "

Acrimony on the rise

Members of the centrist Hatnuah party, which Livni heads, said Bennett was to blame for the “incitement” against Livni, as well as for a recent spitting attack on another Hatnuah MK, Elazar Stern.

Stern said a 17-year-old boy spat at him after synagogue Friday morning, after he condemned Kiryat Arba’s chief rabbi, Dov Lior, for reportedly saying that Ethiopian immigrants to Israel were not Jews. According to Stern, after spitting in his face, the teenager called him an apostate, saying: “That’s for Rabbi Dov Lior, apikores.”

Hatnuah issued a separate statement saying that "the spit in the face of Maj. Gen. Elazar Stern came from the mouth of Naftali Bennett and his gang, just as the lying incitement did.”

Left-wing leaders rallied to Livni’s defense. “Bennett has only himself to blame for the prisoner release,” said Peace Now head Yariv Oppenheimer. “He’s the one who preferred a prisoner release to freezing construction in the settlements, in exchange for a Palestinian agreement to halt unilateral moves in the United Nations. Responsibility for the prisoner release lies at his door.”

Labor MK Merav Michaeli warned against right-wing incitement of the kind that targeted Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin shortly before his assassination in 1995 and called on the prime minister to curb such conduct.

“When these things come from a party in the coalition, from ministers in the government, don’t be surprised that a right-winger spit in the face of a member of [Livni’s] party, Elazar Stern,” said Michaeli. “Don’t be surprised if the next thing is [images of] Livni in an SS uniform.”

According to Michaeli, "It would be fitting for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who gave a speech eulogizing Yitzhak Rabin just a week ago, to prevent ministers in his government from repeating the mistakes he made himself.”

MK Reuven Rivlin of Netanyahu’s Likud party also condemned the spitting incident. “Any attack on an elected official and an attack on his ability to carry out his duty is serious and unacceptable, and it doesn’t matter what the circumstances were that led up to it,” he said.

An associate of Livni’s said Habayit Hayehudi was favoring construction in the settlements “over all Israel’s other national and security interests,” adding that Livni and her party would continue to move forward with the peace process with Netanyahu to reach a two-state solution.

Israel freeing 26 Palestinian prisoners to keep U.S.-sponsored peacemaking on course for a second round of talks, Gaza Strip, August 14, 2013.Credit: Reuters
Livni, left, sitting next to Netanyahu,in meeting with Kerry in Jerusalem, on June 29, 2013. Credit: AP

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