The cabinet convened on Sunday to vote on Netanyahu's proposal to release dozens of Palestinians prisoners as a gesture to the Palestinian Authority ahead of the expected resumption US-brokered of peace negotiations.
In efforts to achieve a compromise that would also allow the undecided ministers to support Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's proposal, Minister Silvan Shalom presented an outline by which the votes for the release of Palestinian prisoners and Arab-Israeli prisoners will be done separately. The proposal, which was sent to the ministers late Saturday night, indeed did not include Arab-Israeli prisoners, but only a total number of prisoners to be released.
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As part of his efforts to convince ministers to support his proposal, Netanyahu decided to defer the decision on the release of Arab-Israeli prisoners to a later date. "Any decision on the release of Arab Israelis, if such a decision will be reached, will be sent for reapproval by the government," he stressed.
The premier said the special ministerial committee he will head will determine which Arab-Israeli prisoners will be released. The Palestinians demanded that the Arab Israelis be released immediately as a precondition for the resumption of peace negotiations.
Video courtesy of jn1.tv
Netanyahu reiterated that any peace agreement that rquires territorial concessions would be put up for a referendum."It is important that in such fateful decisions every citizen will vote directly on an issue that determines the State's future," he told the cabinet meeting. "We will authorize a team of ministers to determine the identity of the prisoners after the process is launched and in accordance with the progress made.
"This is not an easy moment for me; it is not easy for the cabinet ministers, and it is particularly not easy for the bereaved families. But there are moments where difficult decisions must be made for the benefit of the State, and this is one of those moments," said the PM.
During the cabinet meeting, Shin Bet Director Yoram Cohen briefed the ministers on the security-related aspects of the decision.
During the cabinet meeting, Netanyahu said "There is a very heavy price, but not entering the (peace) process will also exact a price. Entering the process will advance Israel's strategic interests. Any provocation on the part of the Palestinians will stop the release (of prisoners).
"No one has to explain to me what the war on terror is. I lost a brother who commanded over an operation (in Entebbe) that was aimed at preventing the release of terrorists. During Operation Pillar of Defense the public's opinion was that I should continue the operation and enter Gaza. I thought otherwise, and not the residents of the south are enjoying calm that has not prevailed (in the region) for more than a decade," he said.
Bereaved families protest (Photo: Gil Yohanan)
As the ministers discussed the proposal, dozens of relatives of Israelis who were killed in terror attacks protested outside the Prime Minister's Office against the release of Palestinian prisoners. The protesters chanted: "This is a day of mourning," "You do not release murderers of children" and "Bibi is a coward." They handed out the private phone numbers of the ministers to passersby, urging them to call the ministers and ask that they vote against the release of Palestinian prisoners.
Photo: Gil Yohanan
Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, who is against the release of terrorists, joined the protesters. "Releasing terrorists bring a lot of bereavement and it is a mark of disgrace on the State of Israel. He on the other side who demands the release of people who murdered and burned children and women is not worthy of being called a 'partner.' I will vote against, my friends will note against," said the chairman of the Hbayit Hayehudi party.
"Terrorists should be eliminated, not freed," he said during the demonstration.
Opposition leader Shelly Yachimovich (Labor) urged the cabinet to approve the release of prisoners. "This is a difficult and painful decision, first and foremost for the families, but it will not hurt the State of Israel's resilience and will allow for the jumpstarting of negotiations – a move that will bolster Israel both strategically and economically.
"The prime minister must listen to the majority of the public and the majority in the Knesset which support a diplomatic solution, rather than continue to be led by the extremists in his government," she said.
Finance Minister Yair Lapid also supported the release of the prisoners. "This is not a happy day; it is a bad day that feels bad. The idea is to release a group of prisoners who are a despicable bunch of people who should rot in jail for life. But our job is not to do what we feel, but what is right for Israel and to reinvigorate the peace process," he said prior to the vote.
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