Tensions within Israel’s governing coalition are reaching a boiling point over the impending release of 26 more prisoners, part of the agreement between Prime Minister Netanyahu and Secretary of State Kerry that paved the way for renewal of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. The cabinet is expected to vote on the latest release, the second in the package, today (Sunday).
Knesset member (and retired major-general) Elazar Stern, an Orthodox Jew in Justice Minister Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua party, was spat on by a 17-year-old youth while leaving synagogue on Saturday. The settler-backed Arutz Sheva-Israel National News reports that the incident was in response to a speech Stern gave criticizing firebrand settler leader Rabbi Dov Lior. But Livni’s number 2, Environment Minister (and former Labor Party defense minister) Amir Peretz said in several radio interviews that the incident was part of an incipient wave of incitement against Livni by settler leaders who oppose the peace negotiations. Leaders of the pro-settler Jewish Home party are accusing Livni of pushing the prisoner release “just so she can continue talking to Saeb Erekat,” as Housing Minister Uri Ariel of Jewish Home wrote on his Facebook page.
The irony, veteran reporter Ben Caspit reports this morning in the Jerusalem Post’s Hebrew-language SofShavua (Weekend) is that it was Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett who forced the prisoner release on Netanyahu. Caspit writes that Netanyahu told his coalition partners in July, just before Kerry announced the renewal of talks, that Israel had to choose either a prisoner release, a nine-month settlement construction freeze or an agreement that talks would be based on the pre-1967 lines with border adjustments. While Livni favored the freeze and Yair Lapid favored the 1967 lines, Bennett threatened to quit the coalition if either of those were chosen and forced Netanyahu to accept the prisoner release.
Caspit’s article is a bombshell (hat tip to Chemi Shalev for posting it on his Facebook page) and worth reading in full. So I’ve taken the liberty of translating it:
Bennett Forced the Prisoner Release—And Now Declares Open Season on Livni
A reminder: On Friday, July 19, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced the renewal of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations after a break of more than four years. That same day, at noon, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the heads of the coalition factions to his office to inform them of the emerging decision and to explain the dilemma. Netanyahu, who is not an out-and-out peacenik, understood that Israel must renew negotiations with the Palestinians. It was an existential requirement, to stop the campaign of delegitimization and bolster the enormous effort in stopping the Iranian nuclear project. To do this, Israel had to meet one of three conditions: freezing construction in the territories for nine months, declaring that the negotiations would be based on the 1967 lines with border adjustments or freeing pre-Oslo prisoners. When Jewish Home party chief Naftali Bennett’s turn came to speak, he announced that from his perspective recognizing the ’67 lines or freezing construction would be cause for quitting the coalition. And prisoners? Bennett let Netanyahu understand that he wouldn’t like it, but he wouldn’t quit. By the way, Hatnuah party chief Tzipi Livni, for example, preferred a freeze. Livni consistently opposes releasing prisoners, and she also opposed the Gilad Shalit deal when it was brought to the Olmert government [in which she was foreign minister]. Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, for example, preferred the 1967 lines. The phrasing could be complex and unclear, and didn’t commit Israel to anything significant. But neither Livni nor Lapid threatened to quit the coalition. Bennett and his Jewish Home were the factor that convinced Netanyahu that he had no other option but a prisoner release. And so it was. Now the people of Jewish Home have announced that Livni is the sole factor behind the freeing of murderers. A package of press announcements put out against Livni by this party in the last few days have effectively threatened her (דמה את מתיר – lit. “permitted her blood”). Here are a few examples: “Freeing prisoners in exchange for Livni’s dubious right to meet with Erekat is very serious”; or “with all due respect, stopping the prisoner release is more important than keeping Livni in the government.” The people in Jewish Home don’t understand that history has already shown that within their unruly ranks there are enough people who are likely to draw conclusions and make decisions that will lead to action. That perhaps the time has come to release Livni from the government, or from the world, in order to stop this. We’ve been in this terrible movie before, haven’t we? Especially considering that Livni, as noted, actually opposes the release of murderers and always has. The one who permitted and even forced this step was Bennett. This is the plain truth. On Saturday night, a senior figure in Jewish Home half-heartedly mumbled something to me along the lines of “True, the statements against Livni were unnecessary, this should be stopped.” Five minutes later, Knesset member Yoni Shedbon released this statement: “It’s better to have Livni out of the coalition than to endanger the safety of the citizens of Israel.” The Wild Ranks That Have Taken Over the State This behavior by the Jewish Home brings me to the conclusion that I was mistaken. Lapid, too, was mistaken. It’s better to sell the state to the Haredim than to hand it over to the madmen of Jewish Home, to the wild ranks that have taken over our country. In the Jewish Home they still don’t understand why we need to negotiate. Why in the home stretch of the most decisive of the two-decade campaign against the Iranian nuclear project, Israel must engage in diplomatic negotiations with the Palestinians. Go explain it to them. The only thing they want is to blow up any possibility of dialogue, even at such a fateful crossroads in our history. From their viewpoint, everything is kosher to stop it, even inciting against an Israeli minister of justice, even accusing her of a failure that they themselves are responsible for, and even closing their eyes to the dangers and implications of these actions. In Jewish Home there are too many people who sit in a powder keg, playing with matches, and don’t understand the magnitude of the danger. Unlike the past, they must be denounced this time before something happens, not afterwards.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).