Israel's Cabinet today approved the release of 104 long-held Palestinian prisoners, clearing a hurdle toward a possible resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks after five years as the US pushes to bring the two sides back to the table. Israeli and Palestinian negotiators will next hold preliminary talks in Washington on Tuesday, to be followed by up to nine months of negotiations on a peace deal. The Cabinet voted 13-7 with two abstentions to approve in principle the release of 104 prisoners, said a government official.
The vote came after a stormy session in which PM Benjamin Netanyahu linked the release to a resumption of talks even as relatives of Israelis killed in Palestinian attacks protested outside. "I believe this is a step toward peace and I hope that we can use this opportunity to resume negotiations," said Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat. Under the deal brokered by Secretary of State John Kerry, the prisoners would be released in four stages over several months. Each release would be linked to progress in negotiations. The prisoners to be freed have served between 19 and 30 years for involvement in deadly attacks on Israelis; their fate is emotionally charged for both sides. Palestinians view them as heroes, while most Israelis see them as cold-blooded terrorists. "There are moments where I need to make tough decisions for the good of the country, and this is one of those moments," said Netanyahu said today.