Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Monday that "my responsibility is to return (kidnapped soldier) Gilad Shalit to his family and people and to care for the security of all Israeli citizens. We will not agree to free prisoners to places from which they could murder Israelis."
Netanyahu mentioned that "immediately after taking office I appointed Hagai Hadas, and we brought in the German mediator. The next move was to obtain a videotape which proved to the world that Gilad is healthy and that Hamas is responsible for his wellbeing. In December 2009, the German mediator approached us with an offer for a deal of 450 Hamas prisoners and 550 prisoners as a gesture to Egypt. Hamas has yet to give an answer.
"I spoke to Noam and Aviva Shalit several times. This is not a simple offer, but we expressed our agreement," the prime minister noted. "I told them that I understood them and identified with their great suffering and expectations. We all long for Gilad's release together with them."
He stressed that "past experience shows that those released in previous deals murdered many Israelis. Only recently, one of the men released in the Tennenbaum deal was involved in the murder of Rabbi Meir Avshalom Hai, the father of seven children.
"Our response to the German mediator on this issue was focused on the fact that we cannot release dangerous terrorists to places in Judea and Samaria from which they could murder Israeli citizens. We keep on looking for additional ways to bring Gilad home safe and sound," he vowed.
Forbidden to travel on Route 443
Netanyahu also said that he is forbidden to travel on Route 443, which was opened recently to Palestinian traffic.
The road connecting the cities of Modiin and Jerusalem was partially opened to Palestinian traffic following a High Court order. While the area's residents have been complaining about the many roadblocks set up on the road, right-wing politicians and activists have harshly criticized the decision as "dangerous" for Israeli citizens.
It appears that the Shin Bet security service is not taking any chances and has decided to use alternative roads to drive the prime minister.
Netanyahu and Livni at committee meeting (Photo: Gil Yohanan)
Netanyahu attended the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee meeting to explain his decision to lift the "civilian siege" on the Gaza Strip following the international pressure on Israel after the deadly flotilla raid.
"Over time, the effectiveness of the civilian siege has dropped," the prime minister said. "The problems with the civilian blockade grew over time before the government's establishment, and this gave Hamas a PR advantage."
He stressed that he had asked to examine ways to ease the civilian siege as early as June 9, "in order to strengthen the security blockade and the international support for it."
Netanyahu noted that "this is the best decision for Israel, as it drops Hamas' main propagandist claim and allows us and our friends in the world to focus on our real needs in the security area.
"Iran is trying to hold on tight to Israel with Hezbollah in the north and Hamas in the south, and it's our right to prevent them from arming. The cabinet's decision focuses on this exact thing, on tightening the security siege."
The prime minister told the committee members that the decision to allow the inflow of goods into Gaza was coordinated with the United States, with Quartet envoy Tony Blair and "with leaders of other countries I have spoken to in the past few days".
'Turkey distancing itself from Europe'
Moving on to the change in the Turkish stand towards Israel, Netanyahu said that Ankara was "beginning to pay the price in the international arena."
According to the prime minister, "There is a big change: Turkey's move since the rise to power of the current party. They are making changes in the international regime compared to what they had there 100 years ago. This change moves the internal situation in Turkey backwards.
"The moment Turkey realized that it would not be entering Europe, it moved to lead the Islamic world, and this is creating a very negative attitude towards Israel."
He mentioned the incident in which Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan walked out on the discussion with President Shimon Peres in Switzerland, and said that the climax was in the Gaza flotilla incident. "Now the Turks are talking about reducing their diplomatic ties with us."
Addressing Israel's neighbors, Netanyahu said, "My government views Egypt as a source of regional stability. Syria is undergoing a process of becoming stronger with weapons and missiles. It's waiting together with Iran and Turkey for an American decision about Iraq. Anyone in the pragmatic camp understands that the upcoming changes are not in our favor. It also weakens the Palestinian Authority."
As for the negotiations with the Palestinians, Netanyahu said: "We must enter immediate talks. The Palestinians thought they could barricade themselves in failing t o enter negotiations, which led to indirect talks. We believe we must move to indirect talks.
"One of the main problems will be the outside envelope. In every agreement we must consider the security-related ramifications. What happens the moment we come out? In Gaza we left unilaterally, the PA collapsed and we got Hamas.
"We must guarantee that there won't be an entry of weapons and missiles which will turn into a strategic threat on the State of Israel… We are facing difficult days not just because of the flotillas, but also in the face of the big challenges."
The prime minister also referred to his scheduled meeting at the White House next month. "I will soon meet with Obama and try to advance the direct negotiations. I will also meet other leaders."
Livni: Political blindness
During the meeting, Netanyahu was slammed by Opposition Chairwoman Tzipi Livni, who was among those who made the decision to impose the Strip. In our government, she said, "there was strategy and direction. Your remarks point to political blindness and giving up. Today Hamas receives legitimacy and Israel loses it."
Addressing the anti-Israel protest in California, Livni noted that "in Gaza ships are unloaded while in the United States a Zim vessel is blocked. The lack of international legitimacy harms Israel's security.
"Israel is perceived as weak and Erdogan identifies the decision to give up. Your conduct is from one crisis to another instead of changing the policy," she told Netanyahu.
"No one believes you," Livni continued. "The direction can be changed and it will only be seen when the prime minister tells the truth to himself and to the public, particularly to the public of his supporters whom he promised there was no need for an agreement."
Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert addressed the decision to ease the siege as he arrived Monday at the Jerusalem District Court for a discussion in his trial.
"I was always in favor of the siege. I think the decision to impose the siege was correct and I am still in favor of the siege – just not on food products," he said. "I am against the flotillas entering Gaza, but it all must be done sensibly and with restraint."
Aviad Glickman contributed to this report