Knesset Tackles Volatile Issue
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Knesset Tackles Volatile Issue

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A Knesset debate over last week’s controversial prisoner exchange was suspended after two hours today as MKs of the Labor-Likud unity coalition opened discussion of two crucial agenda items — release of alleged Jewish terrorists on trial or convicted for acts of violence against Arab civilians and demands for an official inquiry into the Lebanon war.

As those volatile issues were taken up, several thousand persons demonstrated outside the Knesset in favor of a pardon for the Jewish defendants. They heckled Likud speakers who support their cause, noting that the Jewish suspects were arrested when Israel was still governed by the Likud-led coalition headed by Premier Yitzhak Shamir.

A short distance away, Labor Zionist youth movements conducted a counter-demonstration demanding no amnesty for the alleged Jewish terrorists. But the opposite view was expressed today by Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi Avraham Shapiro who maintained that the prisoner exchange established new norms of justice and law in the country which had to be corrected by the release of the Jewish detainees.

On May 20, Israel released 1,150 Palestinian terrorists, many of them serving life sentences for murder, in exchange for three Israeli soldiers held captive for nearly three years in Damascus by a terrorist group, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, headed by Ahmed Jabril.

The lopsided nature of the exchange and the fact that 600 of the freed terrorists were allowed to return to their homes in the West Bank, Gaza and Israel, raised storms of protest among Jewish settlers in the territories along with demands for the immediate release of the Jews facing trial or serving sentences for alleged terrorist acts.

The prisoner exchange was also criticized by many moderates, far removed politically and ideologically from the Jewish militants in the West Bank.


Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin has borne the brunt of this criticism which centers around the fact that Israel, after prolonged negotiations through third parties, acquiesced to the terms of Jabril, a terrorist leader considered more extreme and radical than Palestine Liberation Organization chief Yasir Arafat.

Rabin defended the prisoner exchange in the Knesset today. He stressed that the government — the Labor-Likud coalition — had acted in accordance with principles and norms adopted by previous governments. It was the Likud government of Premier Menachem Begin which released some 3,000 prisoners from the Ansar detention camp in south Lebanon in November, 1983, in exchange for six Israeli soldiers held by the PLO.

Rabin said the absence of military options to rescue the three soldiers gave the government no choice but to take the hard decision it took. There may have been differences in the ratio of Palestinians to Israelis in the exchange, Rabin said, but the government could not escape from its responsibility toward its citizens, especially its soldiers who were sent into combat by the State.

Rabin was frequently interrupted by Likud MKs who asked, “Is any price the right price to pay?” Labor MKs retorted, “And you are not partners in the government?”

In the debate that followed Rabin’s statement, Mapam MK Elazar Granot accused Deputy Premier Yitzhak Shamir, the Likud leader, of blackmail for backing demands for release of the alleged Jewish terrorists. Shamir threw the first rock at the democratic system in Israel, Granot charged. He urged Labor to quit the unity government.

Yoram Aridor of Likud, a former Finance Minister, sharply criticized the prisoner exchange. Hard decisions must be taken, he said, but they must be taken wisely. Addressing Rabin, he declared, “You were wrong when you accepted Jabril’s conditions.”He proposed that the released Palestinians who posed a threat to security be deported.

Labor MK Ora Namir said it was obvious that the Knesset debate was called to prepare the ground for the release of Jewish terrorist defendants. Yuval Neeman of Tehiya said the State was in the process of deterioration and it was time to stop it by limiting the powers of the government.


During the coalition caucus which followed the debate, Premier Shimon Peres said he too was troubled when he saw Arabs rejoicing over the release of murderers. But, he warned, this does not justify Jewish vigilantism. “No one in Judaea and Samaria will take the law into his own hands,” he said with reference to the Jews accused of violence against Arabs.

He said it was agreed that legal proceedings were solely in the hands of the Attorney General and the granting of amnesty was the prerogative of the President in consultation with the Justice Minister.

Peres continued to oppose an inquiry into the Lebanon war. He said that in the present circumstances this was not a crucial issue. Likud has made it clear that such an inquiry would bring down the unity coalition. But Raffi Edri, chairman of the Labor Knesset faction, warned that the coalition could not dictate a decision to the faction on this matter.

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