Israel's Attorney General Bypasses Government in Approving Release of Syrian Prisoners

Israeli law dictates that a release of prisoners triggered by diplomatic considerations must go through the government

Noa Landau
Noa Landau
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FILE PHOTO: Netanyahu and Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit attend a weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem. November 1, 2015. (Dan Balilty/AP)
Netanyahu and Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit attend a weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, 2015.Credit: Dan Balilty / AP
Noa Landau
Noa Landau

The release of two Syrian prisoners announced Saturday was approved by Israel's attorney general in a move the bypassed the cabinet, an Israeli government official said. 

Avichai Mendelblit is required by law to obtain an approval from the cabinet, but the official explained that in this case he was allowed to forgo the involvement of the government due to special circumstances. 

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The official did not elaborate on the said circumstances that permitted  Mendelblit to sanction the release without a cabinet decision, and said the pardon was signed by President Reuven Rivlin.

Earlier Saturday it was confirmed that Israel was releasing the prisoners as a gesture of "good will" after the return of the body of Zachary Baumel, an Israeli soldier who had been missing for 37 years in Syria.

>> Read more: Israel to release Syrian prisoners following return of Israeli soldier's body ■ Recovery of soldier's body reopens 37-year-old wound ■ Secret burial place, intel feat, and a 3rd country: Behind the retrieval of the Israeli soldier's body

The Justice Ministry responded later Saturday to accusations the matter had not been settled with the cabinet. 

Netanyahu attending a ceremony for the return of the body of Israeli soldier Zachary Baumel in Moscow, April 4, 2019Credit: Kobi Gideon / GPO

"Several days after the burial ceremony of Zachary Baumel, may his memory be a blessing, the attorney general was requested by government officials to make his opinion known about the possibility of releasing two Syrian prisoners who are held in Israel via a pardon by the president, as a gesture of good will."

According to the ministry, the "unique" circumstances Mendelblit faced led him to determine that "there is no legal reason not to act to release the prisoners in this manner." 

The prisoners that Israel will release are Zidan Tawil, arrested in 2008 for smuggling drugs, and Fatah operative Ahmad Khamis, arrested in 2005 for attempting to infiltrate into an Israeli military base and harm soldiers. 

Baumel's body was retrieved by Russian forces from a Palestinian refugee camp in Syria earlier this month. He was was one of six soldiers who went missing in Lebanon on June 11, 1982, at the beginning of the First Lebanon War, fighting against Syrian forces.

On Friday, Russia's envoy to Syria, Alexander Lavrentyev said that returning Baumel was first and foremost "a humanistic gesture," but added Israel agreed to release the Syrians in return for Baumel's body.

"When the opportunity arose to transfer the body of the Israeli soldier – we decided to do it. We thank the Syrians for their cooperation." Lavrentyev, who gave the interview in Arabic, added he hopes Arab nations would realize the meaning of the move.

The body's retrieval "paid off for Syria in the end," Lavrentyev said, adding that Russia "would never act in way that contradicts Syria's interests."

On the day Baumel's body was handed over to Israel, a senior official told reporters in Moscow that the gesture carried "no diplomatic price tag."

When confirming the release of the prisoners on Saturday, the Israeli official said it was not part of a pre-determined deal, but a "gesture of good will."

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