A vote expected to take place Sunday in the Israeli Knesset, on a bill which could prevent terrorists from being released in prisoner exchanges or other deals, was taken off the day’s roster by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu following a legal consultation with Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein. The move angered Jewish Home party chairman Naftali Bennett, who allegedly stormed out of the meeting in response.
The bill, proposed by MK Ayelet Shaked (Jewish Home), would allow judges to write a clause into the sentence of a terrorist which would prohibit him or her from being pardoned by the president. This would prevent such terrorists from being exchanged for abducted Israelis or released as part of negotiations. It represents a change in the Basic Law of the President of the State, which allows the president to pardon any prisoner. The Basic Laws are the closest thing Israel has to a constitution.
Bennett had called the bill, “the proper answer to the Fatah-Hamas terror unity government,” explaining that Israel had released thousands of terrorists in recent years, in contrast to previous policy. “Releasing terrorists has become a matter of course,” said Bennett. “This bill will help stop this.”
With cross-party support, the bill was expected to pass the vote Sunday, and was part of a deal between the Jewish Home and Yesh Atid parties, in which the latter would allow this bill through in exchange for the former allowing Yesh Atid’s bill on surrogacy to pass. The surrogacy bill did pass, but the terrorist pardon was stymied by other forces.
The Attorney General noted certain legal issues with the wording of the bill, which would apply to all terrorists in custody, despite the fact that the bill’s description does not mention a prohibition on releasing terrorists within the framework of negotiations.
This is not the first time this bill has hit a roadblock, as it was stopped by Science Minister Yaakov Perry (Yesh Atid) several months ago when first proposed. He claimed it would interfere with the government’s ability to set security and political policy.
A senior Habayit Hayehudi official told Haaretz that “Netanyahu gave in at the last minute. In contrast with agreements, he canceled the vote on the bill and his decision will have ramifications on the coalition’s ability to function. We mustn’t forget: Netanyahu released more murderers while in office than any other prime minister. Every day that this law goes unpassed is a danger to Israeli citizens.”
Although the vote did not take place as anticipated, Netanyahu did commit to bringing the bill before the Diplomacy and Security Cabinet for discussion, alongside the recommendations of the Shamgar Committee on terrorist releases. He assured Bennett that this would take place by next week.
The Shamgar Committee was tasked to investigate how best to negotiate the release of abductees during Gilad Shalit’s imprisonment in Gaza. Among its considerations was whether prisoner exchanges should even be discussed.
Although the final conclusions were never released to the public, it is known that the report recommends, among other things, centralizing all the efforts to free soldiers under the authority of the Defense Minister, and to avoid using government-sponsored special negotiators to discuss matters with terrorists.
In addition, the report suggests avoiding giving “updates” about the status of negotiations. “Secrecy is an important part of our recommendations,” the report says. “It is better to leave to guesswork information about the status of kidnapped or missing soldiers, and not provide that information to groups that will use it in improper ways.”