Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu released a letter to the Israeli public on Saturday evening July 27, 2013 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 prisoner release will be put to a vote at Sunday’s weekly cabinet meeting.
Netanyahu began his letter telling Israelis about the unpopularity of agreeing to a peace talks precondition of releasing Palestinians prisoners; “From time to time, prime ministers are called on to make decisions that go against public opinion – when the matter is important for the country. In order to make decisions that are supported by the public, there is no need for prime ministers.”
However, the Prime Ministers stressed again his message of how important it to permanently end the conflict with the Palestinians considering the events in Egypt and Syria; “At the present time, it seems to me that it is very important for the State of Israel to enter into a diplomatic process. This is important both in order to exhaust the chance of ending the conflict with the Palestinians and in order to establish Israel’s position in the complex international reality around us.”
Netanyahu emphatically stated that he will not agree to the 1967 borders and building freezes in West Bank settlements; “But even with all of the importance that I ascribe to the diplomatic process, I was not prepared to accept the Palestinians’ demands for withdrawals and freezes as preconditions for entering negotiations.”
Netanyahu expressed how difficult this will be for the families of the victims to have those that killed their family members released having not served the full sentences their crimes deserve; “This is an incomparably difficult decision, it is painful for the bereaved families and it is painful for the entire nation and it is also very painful for me. It collides with the incomparably important value of justice.”
He expressed that feels for the families because has also experienced similar pain, telling his own story about his brother Yonatan; “The decision is difficult for me seven-fold because my family and I personally know the price of bereavement stemming from terrorism. I know the pain very well. I have lived with it every day for the past 37 years.”
Netanyahu reiterated his statements from last week about the peace talks being in the best interests of Israel; “In the next nine months, we will consider whether there is a Palestinian element opposite us that, like us, truly wants to end the conflict between us. Such a conclusion will be possible only under conditions that will ensure security for Israel’s citizens and ensure our vital national interests.”
Netanyahu promised any deal will be voted by the public; “If we succeed in achieving such a peace agreement, I will submit it to a referendum. Such a fateful decision cannot be made by a close vote in the Knesset. Every citizen must be allowed to directly influence our future and our fate on such a crucial issue.”
The Prime Minister emphasized 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.” He concluded that the only consolation he can give for the prisoners early release is that Israel thrived while they were prison; “The best answer we can give to those same base murderers that sought to defeat us through terrorism is that in the decades that they sat in prison, we built a glorious country and turned it into one of the most prosperous, advanced and strongest countries in the world.”
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 Tuesday, July 30, 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 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. The cabinet will be voting Sunday morning to approve in general the prisoner release. If the vote is in favor, Netanyahu will make the final arrangements.
Netanyahu has been trying to pressure ministers from his party to vote in favor of the prisoner release. As of Saturday evening, he could only secure the support of 10 ministers. Trying to convince one minister, Netanyahu supposedly told them; “There is no alternative. It is also difficult for me. We must renew the peace process.” The list of ministers voting for the prisoner release precondition includes: Yuval Steinitz, Moshe Ya’alon from Likud, five minister from Yesh Atid, two from Hatnuah, and Yitzhak Aharonovich from Yisrael Beiteinu.
The list is much longer for ministers intending to vote against the release. Economic Minister Naftali Bennett, the leader of Bayit Yehudi said that the ministers from his party are voting against the release, with three ministers confirming that. Avigdor Liberman, the leader of Yisrael Beiteinu is not directing his party to vote in solidarity either for or against the release, he is letting his party chose their position, three ministers will vote against the measure.
The majority of Likud ministers has stated they are undecided, including; Gilad Erdan, Gideon Sa’ar, Silvan Shalom, and Limor Livnat. However, transportation Minister Yisrael Katz is vehemently against it, and confirmed to the Jerusalem Post already that no matter what Netanyahu tells his party he is voting against the release. Katz stated; “I cannot vote to free terrorist murderers, harm bereaved families, and encourage terror. I made my view very clear a week ago, so there is no point in pressuring me.”
Two deputy ministers Danny Danon from Likud and Avi Wortzman from Bayit Yehudi are mounting a campaign to convince cabinet ministers to vote against the prisoner release; Wortzman called it “dangerous and senseless,” while Danon called the prisoner release “lunacy” in a letter released on Saturday.
Deputy Defense Minister Danon stated last week that he is thoroughly against releasing the prisoners based on how detrimental it was for Israel in the past when they have done that. “These murderers must not be released as an ‘act of good will’ or as a prize for returning to the negotiating table.” Considering the objections from Israel’s public and its politicians Netanyahu will have a difficult time getting his cabinet to pass the prisoner release.
The co-chairs of the Land of Israel Caucus, Yariv Levin from Likud and Orit Struck from Bayit Yehudi issued a statement against the prisoner release; “Israel is surrendering yet again. The pace in which the government is backtracking from its declared positions before the talks have begun is very worrying.”
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.
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.”
Additionally on Sunday the cabinet will vote on a revised version of the 2010 Referendum Law. The National Referendum Basic Law proposal is written by Coalition chairman Yariv Levin from Likud Beytenu and MKs Ayelet Shaked and Orit Struck from Bayit Yehudi. The revisions were suppose to turn 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. However, Netanyahu plans to turn it instead into government legislation.
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 are making the bill a priority, and threatened to prevent the budget from passing if the referendum bill does not pass. Last week Bennett declared; “Bayit Yehudi opposes a Palestinian state and we oppose giving the Land of Israel to our enemies, period. This is the land of our fathers, and only the people can decide what to do with it. Nothing will go wrong if we hold a referendum on the future of our nation; this will have an effect on future generations, the great-grandchildren of our great grandchildren.”
Netanyahu sent a memo to the cabinet on Thursday addressing the importance of passing the revised referendum proposal; “In view of the significant developments leading to the resumption of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, the premier views it as urgent to approve a proposal requiring a referendum regarding an agreement or cabinet decision involving the renunciation of applying law, jurisdiction and administration on territories belonging to Israel.”
An agreement where the United States and the Palestinians insist on one sided preconditions and concessions will increasingly be opposed by the Israeli public. Hopefully if a peace deal is struck the terms will more balanced or else it face opposition from Israeli lawmakers and will be voted down by the Israel public in the proposed referendum.
- 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.