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Hypocrisy and Theatrics Over Palestinian Prisoner Release

Seven ministers opposed the decision to release Palestinian prisoners without endangering the prime minister's majority, and without leaving the government about to jump-start negotiations.
Naftali Bennett (C), leader of the Bayit Yehudi party, gestures as he leaves the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City ahead of Israel's parliamentary election on Tuesday, January 21, 2013. Bennett, leader of this far-right party, has emerged as the surprise success story of the country's election campaign.  REUTERS/Ammar Awad (JERUSALEM - Tags: POLITICS ELECTIONS RELIGION) - RTR3CQYX

Israeli politics, with its old and new protagonists alike, put on a dismal and hypocritical show at the cabinet meeting on July 28 — the meeting that approved the release of 104 Palestinian prisoners. On the morning of the vote, several ministers cried out in current events radio programs and on their Facebook pages against the “dangerous gesture” made with too little in return — renewal of the talks with the Palestinian Authority. Their words were directed to their right-wing constituents in the settlements, but none of them considered vacating their ministerial chairs around the cabinet table — in the name of ideology.

The march of hypocrisy was headed by one of the senior representatives of the new politics, HaBayit HaYehudi Chairman and Trade and Economy Minister Naftali Bennett. “Terrorists must be killed, not released. All my life, I struggled to carry out both parts of this statement. Tomorrow, I will vote against,” wrote Bennett childishly on his popular Facebook page, on the eve of the vote. Later on, he even sharpened his severe tone to call the cabinet decision a “mark of Cain,” and even left to join the demonstration held outside the Prime Minister’s Office against release of the prisoners. Bennett knew that at the end of the day — after the approval of the proposal — he would continue to sit in the Economics Ministry he likes so much, and ignore the many calls of his supporters who begged him on his Facebook page to stand by his principles and quit the government.

Transport Minister Yisrael Katz of the Likud-Beitenu party also voted against the proposal. We wonder if he would have done this, it would have meant the end of his role as transportation minister. Katz, like Bennett, is very aware of the fact that he pays no price for his vote and does not endanger anything with his emphatic words against the release of prisoners and his opposition to the decision. We can be sure that the day will come when Katz will remind his party members in the far-right camp of the Likud how he did not betray his party’s ideology. He will then remind everyone how he — as opposed to other ministers — acted in accordance with his beliefs and heroically withstood the pressures imposed by the prime minister.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was also party to this game. While the prime minister did want to win the vote, he also wanted to appear as someone who wrestled with his conscience to achieve this result. He tried to show the world — and the right wing — that it did not come easily to him, that he was tormented in making a decision that would adversely affect Israel’s morals and deterrent power. That he and his cabinet were groaning under the weight of the decision. Netanyahu also flirts with the Israeli Center: He emerges as a responsible prime minister, a moderate leader who wrestles with extremists and understands that diplomatic negotiations are vital. Thus, the prime minister was also able to benefit from the opposition of his party’s ministers Katz and Minister of Communications Gilad Erdan.

Avigdor Liberman, former foreign minister and Yisrael Beitenu party leader also assisted Netanyahu’s efforts. Just as in the Shalit prisoner exchange deal, Liberman announced that he would allow his four ministers freedom of vote. What this meant was that he sent two of his ministers — Minister of Public Security Yitzhak Aharonovitz and Minister of Immigrant Absorption Sofa Landver — to vote in favor of the decision, and two ministers considered to represent “the ideological right” — Minister of Tourism Uzi Landau and Minister of Agriculture Yair Shamir — to vote against. Thus, Liberman succeeded again in having his cake and eating it: He proved to his ideological voters that he keeps the faith, while giving Netanyahu a vital safety net for approving a proposal in a cabinet that he intends to return to soon, as foreign minister.

Aside from the bandying of slogans and political considerations, no purposeful discussion of the issues took place around the table. Even Shin Bet Chief Yoram Cohen, who attended the meeting and presented the severe repercussions of the prisoner release, did not speak as a security expert with the intention of helping the attendees make up their minds on how to vote. As opposed to the dramatic cabinet meeting that was held to approve the Shalit deal — in which all the defense system heads delivered in-depth surveys of the implications of the prisoner release — this time the discussion was shorter, even offhand.

The one person who tried to keep a low profile was, ironically, Defense Minister Moshe “Bogie” Ya’alon who — in almost all recent polls — was rated as one of the most popular ministers. Ya’alon has a clear stance regarding the negative implications of the release of prisoners. He expressed them most clearly in a cabinet meeting about the Shalit deal in October 2011: Then, as minister of strategic affairs, Ya’alon voted against the deal and said, “We know what happened after the Jibril deal [1985]: 178 Israelis were directly murdered by those released in the exchange, they established the key backbone of the intifada that erupted two years later. We know that according to statistics, 60% of released [prisoners] revert to their initial ways.”

Two years later, Ya’alon voted in favor of releasing the prisoners. What has changed? Only his position and his public function. Ya’alon is not willing to pay the political price involved in opposing Netanyahu as one of the high-level ministers in the cabinet. Like Katz and Bennett, he has fallen in love with his new job. He wants to spend the upcoming years in his ministry, and from there jockey for head of the Likud and become prime minister.

So what can we learn from this masquerade party about the resumption of the negotiations? That Netanyahu can go far even with a government that includes the representatives of the far-right. Bennett is very aware that the 1967 borders will be on the table in the renewed talks, from the first discussion. Like other ministers, he is still convinced that Netanyahu has no intentions of going all the way. So why should he leave the party at the very beginning?

Mazal Mualem is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor and formerly a chief political analyst for Maariv and Haaretz. She also previously worked for Bamachane, the Israeli army's weekly newspaper.                                               

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