Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said that Israel will free 104 Palestinian prisoners to coincide with the resumption of long-stalled peace talks.
“I agreed to free 104 Palestinians in stages, after the start of negotiations and according to progress,” he wrote on his official Facebook page on Saturday evening.
Israel’s cabinet is expected to vote on the issue on Sunday, and decide whether to allow the release of 104 Palestinians currently in Israeli jails.
Seeking to assuage public qualms about freeing prisoners many of whom were convicted of killing Israelis, Netanyahu issued a statement on Saturday urging the support of Israelis for what he called a “very painful decision”.
“Prime ministers must from time to time make decisions that go against public opinion, when it is important for the country to do so,” Netanyahu said.
Israeli media reported on Sunday that the far-right Jewish Home party intended to vote against the plan, while the equally hardline Yisrael Beitenu had given its ministers a free vote.
Inside the Likud, deputy defence minister Danny Danon urged the party’s ministers to vote “no”.
“I say that this is a diplomatic mistake, a moral mistake,” he told public radio.
Israel’s agreement to free the inmates, held since before a 1993 interim accord with the Palestinians, is seen as critical to the US hopes of convening Israeli and Palestinian negotiators to resume peace talks that have been stalled since 2010.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has demanded that Israel free the prisoners, all held for more than 20 years, as a condition for resuming negotiations.
Netanyahu also suggested that freeing the prisoners would also be a test of Palestinian intentions, saying Israel would in the coming months “see whether we face a Palestinian side that wants, as we do, a genuine end to the conflict between us”.
Officials said Netanyahu’s plan called for freeing inmates in at least four stages stretched over a nine-month period, with the first group being released over the next few weeks.
The Israeli cabinet is also expected to name Netanyahu as head of a four-member senior cabinet team charged with reviewing the 100 or so prisoners slated for release, among thousands of Arabs incarcerated by Israel, the Israeli officials said.
Silvan Shalom, a senior cabinet minister, said on Friday the prospective freeing of prisoners with “blood on their hands” was “a difficult step, but you have to see the whole picture, which is a resumption of negotiations”.
Peace talks stalled three years ago in a dispute over illegal Jewish settlement building, which Palestinians say deprives them of land they need for a state.