JERUSALEM (May. 21)
Deputy Premier and Likud leader Yitzhak Shamir took the lead today in the rising chorus of voices emanating from rightwing political circles urging for the release of the members of the Jewish terrorist underground following yesterday’s exchange of Palestinian prisoners for three Israeli soldiers held by a Damascus-based Palestinian terrorist group.
The exchange itself, meanwhile, has come under a good deal of criticism — but much of it is muted, with politiciars hesitating to take a public stand against the complex prisoner exchange during which Israel set free some 1,100 Palestinians and others, among them some of the most notorious terrorist mass killers in its prison population for as long as two decades.
Shamir, who is also the Foreign Minister, went public with his demand for the release of the Jewish terrorists — who are on trial in Jerusalem for a series of violent acts against Arab civilians on the West Bank dating from 1980 and conspiracy to blow up Islamic shrines on the Temple Mount — at a session of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Security Committee. These sessions are nominally secret, but in fact non-sensitive subjects invariably leak out at once.
SHAMIR: A REPRIEVE IS CALLED FOR
Shamir said that since the Jewish defendants — some of whom have already been sentenced — were prepared publicly to express remorse over their crimes and undertake to desist from such action in the future, it would be both right and proper to reprieve them. This was particularly the case now that scores of the most heinous Arab criminals had been set free. He made it clear that he would take up the matter with Premier Shimon Peres and was demanding a debate in the Cabinet or the inner Cabinet.
Commerce Minister Ariel Sharon made similar remarks to journalists in Haifa today. He said that while wholly disapproving of the actions of the members of the Jewish terrorist underground, he supported the release.
Sources close to the Premier said today that he was not in favor of releasing the underground members at present. The sources said this reflected the views of all the Labor Party Ministers in the Cabinet.
However, if the issue should come before the Cabinet, informed sources predicted that those in favor of releasing the underground members would win the vote.
They pointed out that Yigal Hurwitz of Ometz and Yosef Shapira of Morasha had long been advocating the reprieve of the Jewish underground members, and they would be joined in a vote by Yosef Burg of the National Religious Party and Yitzhak Peretz of Shas — thus creating a majority, assuming all or most of the Likud members would support the reprieve.
Technically, Peres could block a Cabinet debate by insisting that the issue be dealt with by the 10-man inner Cabinet where the five Likud members and five Labor members would presumably square off against one another and result in a deadlock. If Peres took this course, though, it could provoke a crisis in the coalition government.
PROCESS OF REPRIEVE OR RELEASE
A second technical question concerns the process of reprieve or release if eventually a decision is taken in this favor. The alleged underground members who have already been jailed could be reprieved by the President of Israel at the recommendation of the Justice Minister. But for those still on trial, only a decision of the Attorney General to drop the charges against them could bring about their immediate release.
The Attorney General, Prof. Yitzhak Zamir, is entirely sovereign in this respect, and need not take account of any decision by the Cabinet. Shamir told the Knesset committee that if the political support was there, the technical-legal way would surely be found to release the men.
In the Cabinet, it is reliably understood that only one minister, Likud-Liberal member Avraham Sharir, expressed strong reservations over the terms of the exchange when they were reported to the ministers in April. The ministers were not required to vote: the decision was taken by the inner Cabinet, where the vote was unanimous, and merely reported to the full Cabinet. Sharir reportedly pressed for a vote nevertheless, but he received no support for his demand.
COURT RULING ON UNDERGROUND MEMBERS
Meanwhile, the Supreme Court ruled today that the 20 alleged members of the Jewish terrorist underground on trial must remain in custody and refused their bail request. Their appeal came before the court because they have been in custody for a full year.
Many of the wives and children of those held in custody, joined by friends and well-wishers, began a hunger strike in an encampment opposite the Knesset, in an effort to lobby for public and Knesset support for their release.
The trial of the underground members is drawing to a close with summation addresses by counsel expected next week. In the Jerusalem District Court today, defendant No. 1, Menachem Livni, said it was shameful for the state to continue with the trial in the wake of release of the Palestinians against whom the Jewish defendants had sought to act in self defense. “The injustice cries out to heaven,” Livini told the court — and later repeated this to reporters outside.
The debate over the Jewish terrorists, which is quickly becoming a left-right confrontation, has to some extent focused public debate away from the prisoner exchange itself. But there is nevertheless a discernible undercurrent of distress, dissatisfaction and disapproval over the terms of the exchange which seems to cut across party lines and affect Israelis of all political hues.
While there is much understanding for Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s repeated assertions of “Ein Brera” (no choice), many persons nevertheless feel that the price was too high — especially the decision to allow some 600 of the released criminals to remain in Israel the West Bank and Gaza. In the Foreign Affairs and Security Committee today, Likud Liberal MK Pinhas Goldstein spoke with bitter disparagement of two of the three Israelis released in the exchange — Yosef Groff and Nissim Salem. The third was Hezi Shai. Goldstein said that Groff and Shai, who with six Israeli POWs who were released in the November 1983 exchange were captured without resisting, should be court-martialed.
Several Knesset members presented motions for the agenda, but the Committee acceded to a government request that no debate on the prisoner exchange be held this week. Next Monday, the government itself will open a debate on the issue with a formal statement to the Knesset.