At Israel’s weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday, July 28, 2013, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his cabinet approved a revised referendum bill and the release of 104 Palestinian prisoners. The latter was passed by a 13-7 vote despite its unpopularity with the majority of Israeli lawmakers and the public. With those votes set peace talks with the Palestinians will begin this Monday evening July 29, 2013 in Washington, D.C. The vote immediately sparked protests in front of Netayahu’s offices in Jerusalem.
During a tense six hour cabinet meeting the ministers agreed to precede under Netanyahu’s terms with the peace talks. The ministers passed the initial barriers that will allow for the government to move forward to start renewed negotiations for peace with the Palestinians.
Netanyahu in his remarks at the beginning of the weekly cabinet meeting discussed the meeting’s main agenda. The Prime Minister stated; “Today, the Cabinet will discuss three subjects: Resuming the diplomatic process with the Palestinians, the referendum law and authorizing a ministerial committee on the issue of releasing prisoners. I believe that resuming the diplomatic process at this time is important for the State of Israel both in order to try to bring about an end to the conflict and given the complex reality in our region, especially the security challenges from Syria and Iran.”
Far easier to pass was the revised version of the 2010 Referendum Law. The bill was passed by all the ministers except for two ministers from the Hatnua Party; Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, the chief negotiator for Israel in the peace talks, and Environmental Protection Minister Amir Peretz. Livini has voiced her opposition to a public vote on any peace deal.
The National Referendum Basic Law draft is written by Coalition chairman Yariv Levin from Likud Beytenu and MKs Ayelet Shaked and Orit Struck from Bayit Yehudi. The revisions turned the present law into a Basic Law; making it a constitutional law, and much more difficult to repeal; 61 MKs would have to vote in favor to end the law. It would guarantee that there would absolutely be a vote in the event of a peace deal. The vote would occur after the cabinet and Knesset would approve any agreement with the Palestinians.
Netanyahu commented on the revised bill at the meeting’s commencement; “Any settlement, should one be achieved in the negotiations, will be submitted to a referendum. It is important that every citizen have a direct vote on fateful decisions such as these that will determine the future of the state. “
The referendum bill however, will not allow for a public vote for land exchanged in the West Bank. Netanyahu wanted there to be a vote for land in the West Bank included in any proposed deal; requiring a provision to include land swaps in the Judea and Samaria regions which were not included in the original law. However, since the West Bank is not covered under Israeli law it was impossible to include it. Netanyahu speaking to a party faction meeting supposedly said he would include a small part of Jerusalem in the land exchange putting the entire deal a public vote.
Naftali Bennett and his party Bayit Yehudi were making the bill a priority, and threatened to prevent the budget from passing if the referendum bill does not pass. The bill now proceeds to the Knesset on Wednesday for a first vote.
The prisoner release was much tougher for Netanyahu to sell to his cabinet ministers as of last night the Prime Minister could only secure 10 ministers’ vote for the unpopular measure. The final vote showed how much the issue causes tension in the cabinet, members of the Knesset and the Israeli public. The measure passed with a vote of 13 to 7 with two ministers abstaining.
Netanyahu faced opposition from cabinet ministers in his Likud party; the vote was split down ideological lines with the more conservative members and parties in the cabinet voting against the release and the more liberal members and parties voting in favor. All of Bayit Yehudi’s ministers including leader Naftali Bennett voted against, while all of Yesh Atid’s ministers and its leader Yair Lapid voted for the measure; the two parties are Netanyahu’s largest coalition partners.
The ministers who voted against the prisoner release included Gilad Erdan and Yisrael Katz from Likud, Yair Shamir and Uzi Landau from Yisrael Beiteinu Naftali Bennett, Uri Ariel and Uri Orbach all from Bayit Yehudi, and two Likud abstained from voting, Silvan Shalom and Limor Livnat.
The ministers who voted for the release included Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Yuval Steinitz, Moshe Ya’alon and Gideon Sa’ar from Likud, Sofa Landver and Yitzhak Aharonovitch from Yisrael Beiteinu, Yair Lapid, Yael German, Yaakov Peri, Shai Piron, Meir Cohen all from Yesh Atid and Tzipi Livni and Amir Peretz both from Hatnua the most liberal of the coalition partners.
During the cabinet meeting Bennett spoke out against the release stating; “I call on everyone to stop saying that ‘no Palestinian state would mean the end of Israel.’ Have we gone mad?! Israel would thrive even without a Palestinian state. In the past we freed a terrorist for a live soldier, later hundreds of terrorists for one live soldier, later terrorists for a dead soldier; and now – a hundred terrorists for a process. We are showing the world that, for us, everything is negotiable.”
Bennett is gaining popularity with his positions, a new Knesset Channel poll indicated that in a new election his party Bayit Yehudi would win 19 seats three less than Netanyahu’s Likud and up seven from the 12 he presently holds.
Coalition head Yariv Levin from Likud voiced his opposition to the measure after the vote was held; “The decision represents a new record in the theater of the absurd in which Israel abandons its security while gaining nothing in return. It has once again been proven that the peace talks are only a means by which the Palestinians extract Israeli concessions, and unfortunately, the government once again fell into this transparent trap.”
Chief negotiator Tzipi Livni’s position is the opposite supporting the release; “We made a decision to release vile murderers who have sat in Israeli prisons for many years, and rightly so. They will only be released if the negotiations are serious, and this is the answer to those who are willing to release for peace…. without the (peace) process and without negotiations, there cannot be peace.”
Before the measure passed Netanyahu discussed in his weekly remarks at the start of the cabinet meeting the difficulty he has in releasing the prisoners, murderers and terrorists. His comments echoed the letter he released to the Israeli public Saturday evening. Netanyahu stated; “This moment is not easy for me. It is not easy for the ministers. It is not easy especially for the families, the bereaved families, whose heart I understand. But there are moments in which tough decisions must be made for the good of the country and this is one of those moments.”
According to the United States State Department Israel’s prisoner release agreement is essential for the resumption of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians set to begin with logistical meetings on Monday evening, July 29, 2013 in Washington, DC. Martin Indyk, the former U.S. Ambassador to Israel will serve as mediator, Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni is the designated chief negotiator for Israel, Yitzhak Molcho is personally representing Netanyahu, and Saeb Erekat is representing the Palestinians. This current batch of negotiations will last for a maximum of nine months.
Israel has to release Palestinians prisoners as a condition for the talks to proceed. The prisoners will primarily consist of all 104 “heavyweight prisoners” convicted of terrorist attacks and murders of Israelis prior to the 1993 Oslo Accords, including Israeli Arabs. The list of the prisoners’ names has been released in advance for families of the victims to be allowed to protest in the High Court of Justice. The prisoners have been serving between 19 and 30 years in prison.
Reports on Saturday stated the number of prisoners was increasing from 82 pre-Oslo Palestinians up to 104 to include 24 Israeli-Arabs, 14 of which are Israeli residents, and seven residing in Jerusalem. The 24 Israeli Arabs were added because the Palestinians threatened they would not come to the inaugural negotiation meeting set for Tuesday. Early reports after the announcement of resumption of talks stated Israel will be releasing 350 prisoners; however, the official number is down to 104 that will be released.
They will be released in increments as the negotiations progress and based on how they proceed; four times, six to eight weeks apart with Netanyahu determining the exact dates. The Prime Minister supposedly will release 20 prisoners two weeks after the talks begin. The Israeli-Arabs will be the last to be released because they pose the greatest risks to Israeli Jews. Not all prisoners will be allowed to return to Palestinians territories, the most dangerous might be exiled to ensure the protection of Israel. Netanyahu will make the final arrangements after the cabinet’s vote approval.
Netanyahu created a ministerial team that will supervise the prisoner release at the start of the meeting. Netanyahu will act as chair; and will include the following cabinet members; Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch and Science, Technology and Space Minister Yaakov Peri.
The prisoner release passed despite opposition from Naftali Bennett’s Bayit Yehudi Party and a campaign mounted by two deputy ministers Danny Danon from Likud and Avi Wortzman from Bayit Yehudi against the prisoner release; Wortzman called it “dangerous and senseless,” while Danon called the prisoner release “lunacy” in a letter to cabinet members released on Saturday.
The same sentiment is shared by the Israeli public. A poll of Israeli Jews’ opinion of the release of Palestinian prisoners to initiate peace talks Wednesday by New Wave Research showed that 85 percent oppose their release, 9.4% approve with 5.7% undecided. Additionally a smaller majority of Israeli Jews still would not want the prisoners released even after talks resumed; 78.1% oppose any release, 13.7% support it, while 8.2% are undecided.
Public opposition is so high that the vote and agreement to release 104 prisoners prompted protests in front of Netanyahu’s office in Jerusalem. The protesters were mostly from right wing groups including the Almagor Terror Victims Association, which includes family members of terrorist victims and Im Tirtzu movement, and “Yisrael Sheli” (My Israel). The protesters displayed placards with photos of the some of the victims that died from the hands of the prisoners that are being released, with red hand prints representing the victims’ blood. Prior to the cabinet the protesters had been pressuring ministers through text messages.
Those protested were from far ranging age groups what they had in common was their disappointment, anger and disillusionment that Netanyahu decided to give in to the Palestinians and release known murderers and terrorists again; the first time was the release of over 1,000 prisoners to secure captive IDF soldier Gilad Shalit in 2011. The prime minister had promised in his 2008 campaign not to release terrorists as bargaining chips in agreements.
On Saturday evening July 27, 2013, Netanyahu released a letter to the Israeli public Israel time explaining his decision to release in stages 104 pre-Oslo Accords Palestinian prisoners convicted of murder and terrorism. Netanyahu was looking for public support and understanding for a measure that is extremely unpopular among Israelis and his own cabinet.
The Prime Minister emphasized in the letter that sometimes it necessary to make unpopular positions if they are in the nation’s best interests; “People in positions of leadership need to choose between complex choices and sometimes the necessary decision is especially difficult when most of the public opposes it.”
Last Friday July 19, 2013, United States Secretary of State John Kerry announced from Amman, Jordan that the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority agreed to sit down together for peace talks in Washington, DC. This is the first time talks will have resumed in three years since they stalled in 2010 over West Bank Jewish settlement construction.
Palestinians have been demanding as a precondition that the talks would be based on the pre-1967 Six-Day War borders would take away from Israel Jerusalem’s old city, the Golan Heights and the West Bank, and that there will be a settlement construction freeze in Israeli settlements that are located beyond the bounds of the 1967 borders, in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Israel has demanded at a minimum level that the Palestinians recognize Israel as the Jewish State, although Israel is thoroughly opposed to Palestinian right of return to their pre-1948 homes in Israel, and any division of Jerusalem.
The United States supports the 1967 borders as a basis for talks, an unnamed senior Likud Party member close to the matter stated; “The issue of the 1967 borders, as far as it is understood, is being presented as an American position,” however, despite earlier reports U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry did not write a letter to Palestinians promising them the Yom-Kipper war borders in a peace agreement.
Netanyahu supposedly will cap construction this year to 1,000 homes in existing settlement communities as opposed to outposts; there however, are no limits to number of private constructions. The senior Likud official does not believe that is not much of concession, since that is the average construction each year anyhow. The source told the media; “There has almost never been a year in which more than 1,000 housing units were built under government auspices in the settlements. Furthermore, Netanyahu has placed no limits on private construction activity, which, in the meantime, is proceeding as usual.”
Although the cabinet passed one unpopular measure with the prisoner release, democracy will prevail with the passage of the referendum bill draft. Israelis will have the final word on any peace deal that will affect their future and future generations in a public vote. Hopefully after this gesture to the Palestinians the peace negotiations will be more balanced without Israel always being the one to make all the concessions and sacrifices, with the ability to refuse without being blamed on the international stage.
- PM Benjamin Netanyahu’s Remarks at the Start of the Cabinet Meeting, July 28, 2013
- PM Benjamin Netanyahu’s Open Letter to Israeli Citizens Ahead of the Proposal to Resume the Diplomatic Process that will be Presented at Tomorrow’s Cabinet Meeting, July 27, 2013
Bonnie K. Goodman is the Editor of the Academic Buzz Network, a series of political, academic & education blogs which includes History Musings: History, News & Politics. She has a BA in History & Art History & a Masters in Library and Information Studies, both from McGill University, and has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies program. Her specializations are US, Canadian & Israeli politics.