The release of 26 Palestinian prisoners this week and a proposed law to prevent such occurrences in the future have caused the most serious rift in the coalition since it was formed earlier this year.
The prisoners, many of whom had been sentenced to life imprisonment for murder, were released and returned to the Palestinian Authority on Tuesday night as part of the package of gestures Israel committed to before the resumption of the current peace talks. These include the release of 104 prisoners in four batches.
The Habayit Hayehudi party, along with a number of Likud Knesset members, are trying to push through a law that will prevent such gestures in the future. And on Sunday, at an angry session of the cabinet legislative committee, a majority of ministers voted against the proposal.
Habayit Hayehudi leader and Economics Minister Naftali Bennett, who tabled the proposal, failed to gain a majority after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered Likud ministers to vote against the motion.
The argument over the release led to the first open row between Mr Bennett and his ally, Yesh Atid. Its leader, Finance Minister Yair Lapid, said the proposed law was “very irresponsible”.
While Mr Bennett refrained from responding to the Likud or Yesh Atid on the issue, he criticised the lead negotiator with the Palestinians, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni. His office put out a statement saying that “releasing terrorists for the dubious honour of Livni meeting [Palestinian negotiator Saeb] Erekat is very serious.… Blocking the release of murderers is more important even than justifying the presence of Livni in the government.”
Meanwhile, Israel’s announcement on Tuesday night that it would advance plans to build a number of settlements beyond the Green Line was met with widespread criticism. New British Middle East Minister Hugh Robertson urged Israel to “avoid steps that undermine the prospects for peace”.