Livni breaks ranks over prisoner exchange deal

Israeli opposition leader Tzipi Livni yesterday broke sharply with the mainstream consensus of support for the prisoner exchange which secured abducted soldier Gilad Shalit’s release with an emphatic warning that it had strengthened Hamas and weakened Israel.

Ms Livni yesterday called on the government to co-ordinate the second batch of 550 prisoner releases with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to offset a deal in which “an extreme right wing [Israeli] government has provided legitimacy for the Hamas.”

The former foreign minister is the first prominent politician outside the ranks of the far right to criticise the deal, which provides for the release of 1,027 prisoners, some convicted for violent attacks including organising suicide bombings. She disclosed that she had promised Sgt Shalit’s father Noam that she would not voice her concerns until after it was completed. Ms Livni referred to the emotional popular clamour for Sgt Shalit’s release by saying that the Israeli public had been “engulfed in the Gilad Shalit reality TV show” and had “coerced” the government into deciding in favour of the exchange.

The opposition leader pointedly coupled her warnings about the effect of the exchange for Sgt Shalit with criticism of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyhau’s failure to enter peace negotiations with the moderate Fatah-dominated leadership of Mr Abbas. While Israel says it is ready for direct talks “without preconditions”, Mr Netanyahu has declined to grant the settlement freeze Mr Abbas is insisting is needed as an article of good faith if the talks are to restart.

Ms Livni whose centrist Kadima party won the biggest single number of votes in the 2009 elections, told the mass circulation daily Yedhiot Ahronot that as a result of the Shalit deal “Israel is today weaker and Hamas stronger—and no one can dispute this fact.” She said that unless Mr Netanyahu now launched a “dramatic political initiative” the message will be that Israel acts only when threatened, when its soldiers are abducted, or when fired upon with missiles.

Ms Livni’s outspoken remarks came as Defence Minister Ehud Barak indicated he was keen for legislation which would limit the number of prisoners the Israeli government can exchange for soldiers captured by militants, partly to deter future abductions. Mr Barak will shortly receive a report he commissioned four years ago from former Chief Justice Meir Shamgar suggesting guidelines for future exchanges.

Mr Barak reaffirmed his strong support for the Shalit deal, arguing that any restrictions on exchanges could not have been enacted while the 25 year old sergeant was incarcerated. While insisting that the exchange did not itself undermine Israel’s power of deterrence, he told the right wing newspaper Israel Hayom: “We can’t ignore the fact that a single abduction produced the return of over one thousand terrorists… We cannot ignore Hamas’s achievements in this deal…it is Hamas’s sense that if we gave up a thousand [prisoners] we can be compelled to give up 8,000 and that therefore they must undertake further abductions. We will obviously move to check this trend.”

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