A Struggle over Arab-Israeli Terrorists, as Final Release Looms
Opponents and proponents of freeing 14 pre-Oslo prisoners agree that the US is exerting massive pressure on Netanyahu
The Times of Israel
Israelis wearing keffiyehs hold up hands covered in fake blood to protest the release of Palestinian prisoners near the prime minister’s office, July 28, 2013 (photo credit: Flash 90)
Cpl. Avraham Bromberg was heading back from his army base in the Golan Heights to his home in Zichron Yaakov on November 26, 1980, when a number of men jumped him. Bromberg struggled with his attackers, but was overpowered and shot in the head, his weapon stolen. He was found on the roadside and died in hospital two days later.
Sentenced to life in prison in early 1983, Karim Younis from the Arab town of ‘Aara in central Israel is now the longest serving security prisoner in an Israeli jail. He carried out the attack on Bromberg as a member of the Fatah movement.
Younis is one of 14 Arab Israelis convicted of terrorism before the signing of the Oslo Accords in September 1993. According to an understanding reached between the Palestinians and Israel and brokered by the United States ahead of the current round of negotiations, all 104 pre-Oslo security prisoners still held in Israeli jails are to be released by the end of March, when the last of four release phases is to be realized.
Though the date for the release is quickly approaching, officials said this week that lawmakers are still far from holding a needed vote to approve the measure, which carries more weight than previous phases because it involves the release of Israeli citizens.
Israel has held the Israeli prisoners coveted by the Palestinians for the last of the planned releases, remaining vague as to whether it would indeed let them go.
Israel has always been reluctant to include its own citizens in prisoner exchange deals with the Palestinians, claiming that while the PA represented Palestinians living in its own territory, it could not speak for Palestinians living inside Israel.
A Palestinian woman waits in the northern Gaza Strip for released prisoners to come through the Erez Crossing, December 31, 2013 (photo credit: AP/Hatem Moussa)
But that principle was broken in the prisoner swap over abducted Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in October 2011. The deal saw 1,027 Palestinians freed from Israeli jails, including six Israelis and 14 residents of East Jerusalem.
With peace talks set to kick off last summer, the Israeli cabinet approved the prisoner releases on July 28, 2013, with 13 in favor, seven in opposition, and two abstentions. In return, the Palestinian leadership vowed not to appeal for membership in international organizations for the duration of negotiations.
Netanyahu appointed a small team of ministers, including Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, Minister of Internal Security Yitzhak Aharonovitch and Science Minister Yaakov Peri — all of whom supported the deal — to determine the identity of the prisoners to be released in each of the four phases.
To ease the blow, Netanyahu told his cabinet in July that any freeing of Arab Israelis will be brought to a second vote in the government. The last release is scheduled to take place on March 28.
The Times of Israel spoke this week with media advisers for three Israeli ministers, all of whom did not know if or when a cabinet vote on the final release is scheduled to take place.
Kobi Ellenbogen, a spokesman for Communications Minister Gilad Erdan, while unaware of a new vote, noted that Erdan was one of two Likud members who voted against the measure back in July.
Nisan Zeevi, a spokesman for Science Minister Yaakov Peri, said such a vote is still “ages away,” noting that Peri had voted in favor of releasing 104 Palestinian prisoners even though “he was responsible for putting 95 of them behind bars” as head of the Shin Bet between 1988 and 1995.
Zeevi said that he has so far not been approached by any Israeli lobbyists trying to change Peri’s vote next time around.
John Kerry speaking to the press Thursday, February 27, 2014 (photo credit: AP/Jose Luis Magana)
But one such organization has already begun trying to convince cabinet ministers to oppose the final prisoner release. Almagor, an Israeli organization which advocates for families of terror victims, has unsuccessfully appealed to the Supreme Court to halt every previous round of releases. Today, it is trying to convince ministers who supported the move last July to oppose it over the Israeli terrorists expected to be included.
Meir Indor, CEO of Almagor, said that according to his organization’s calculations, Netanyahu no longer has a majority in government for a fourth prisoner release.
“It’s a very dangerous symbolic move which must be prevented in every way possible,” Indor told The Times of Israel.
In his bid to convince Israeli ministers to oppose the measure, Indor characterizes it as not only immoral, but also ineffective in fostering Palestinian goodwill. Just Monday, Mahmoud Abbas told Israeli MK Zahava Gal-On that Palestinians will demand further prisoner releases as talks continue.
Almagor CEO Meir Indor (photo credit: courtesy/Meir Indor)
“What have we gained? You [the Israeli ministers] wanted to avoid extortion, but he [Abbas] is already starting to extort. So there’s no point in continuing the process and it should be stopped now,” he said.
Indor added that the remaining prisoners are the worst offenders yet, citing an Israeli poll showing that 80 percent Israelis oppose the move.
Releasing Israeli terrorists — while understandable as part of a hostage predicament like Shalit’s — is inexcusable as an incentive for peace talks, he argued.
“We have established a separation barrier, a [border] line, yet here we are placing the Arab Israeli population under the auspices of a different entity, under the protection of the Palestinian Authority.”
The US is behind the massive pressure placed on the Netanyahu government to complete the freeing of pre-Oslo prisoners, Indor is convinced, noting that he has heard as much from Israeli ministers whom he would not name.
Indor has asked US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro to arrange a meeting with Secretary of State John Kerry in order to explain the position of bereaved Israeli families.
“The Americans are employing a double standard,” Indor said. “They condemned the Afghan government for releasing terrorists who killed American and British soldiers, yet they want us to release terrorists.”
“We have a problem with John Kerry,” he added. “What Ya’alon said is true, the guy is obsessive.”
Meanwhile, on the other side of the equation, MK Ibrahim Sarsur (Ra’am-Ta’al) was confident on Tuesday that the release would go forward on March 28, since Netanyahu will not be able to withstand the American pressure exerted on him. He said that Israel is expected to free 32 prisoners on that date, since during the previous installment on December 31 Israel decided to free six prisoners who were not on the original list of pre-Oslo detainees submitted by the PA.
MK Ibrahim Sarsur at his Knesset office, April 4, 2014 (photo credit: Elhanan Miller/Times of Israel)
“For Kerry and for us, the important thing is that Israel implements what it has agreed upon,” Sarsur said. “I believe that the vast majority of Israeli ministers agree, but however they decide — whether by government vote or otherwise — that’s just an internal Israeli issue, a technical issue Netanyahu will have to figure out.”
The US is adamant about the prisoner release because it realizes that it is the only means of safeguarding Mahmoud Abbas’s credibility on the Palestinian street.
“As long as the Americans push this issue and don’t back down, Netanyahu will have to obey. He has no other choice,” Sarsur said.
Last month, Sarsur became the first and only Arab MK to stand on the Knesset podium and call on Obama to release convicted Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard.
“I say honestly, a person who served 27 or 28 years in jail should serve no longer,” Sarsur told The Times of Israel. “But I dismiss out of hand the linkage Netanyahu is trying to make between the release of Arab Israeli prisoners and Pollard’s release.”