Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu turned to the citizens of Israel in an open letter on Saturday explaining his decision to release Palestinian prisoners
as a gesture to the Palestinian Authority ahead of the renewal of peace talks in Washington next week.
Netanyahu will take the decision to free the prisoners before the cabinet on Sunday, Israeli officials said on Saturday.
Netanyahu has already agreed to free the prisoners, but wanted cabinet approval to help overcome qualms among Israelis about freeing inmates convicted of involvement in lethal attacks, Israeli officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
He said that the plan was to release 104 Palestinian prisoners, not before the talks start, but at stages as they progress.
"This is an incredibly difficult decision. It hurts the bereaved families, it hurts all of the Israeli people and it hurts me very much. It clashes with the most important principle, the principle of justice," Netanyahu stated.
Netanyahu said that "sometimes prime ministers are forced to make decisions that go against public opinion - when the issue is important for the country."
Netanyahu addressed the upcoming start of peace talks, saying that "in the next nine months we will determine if across from us is a Palestinian partner that desires a true end to the conflict as we do."
The prime minister stated that such an end to the conflict would have to ensure security for Israelis and "ensure Israel's essential national interests."Israeli-Arabs reportedly to be freed as well
Ami Palmor, head of the pardons department of the Justice Ministry told the Knesset Interior and Environment Committee last week
, that the 82 prisoners Israel intended to release were all Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza who were sentenced for their crimes before the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993.
It was revealed in the Knesset briefing that all of the prisoners to be released had blood on their hands and were serving life sentences.
Israel Radio reported on Saturday that Netanyahu decided to raise the number of prisoners that Israel will release from 82 to 104 after the Palestinians threatened that they would not attend the opening meeting of talks
in Washington next week otherwise.
Some of the prisoners to be released were Israeli-Arab prisoners that in the past Israel had refused to free, according to the source.
The decision to release Israeli-Arab prisoners as a goodwill gesture to the Palestinians contravenes Israeli policy not to allow the Palestinian Authority to intervene in Israeli-Arab affairs, the report stressed. Kerry informs Abbas that Israel to release prisoners
US Secretary of State John Kerry phoned Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Friday and informed him of the Israeli government’s decision to release Palestinian prisoners.
Abbas’s spokesman, Nabil Abu Rudaineh, said that Kerry told the PA president that US President Barack Obama’s administration fully supports the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
During a meeting with Palestinian journalists in Ramallah, Abbas was quoted as saying that Palestinians should expect “good news” on Sunday regarding the release of Palestinian prisoners.
Abbas refused to elaborate, but told the journalists: “Follow the Israeli media on Sunday and you will hear good news on the prisoners.”
Abbas reiterated his commitment to a two-state solution and said the Palestinians were keen on the success of the peace process.
Opposition to prisoner release within coalition
Likud ministers said Netanyahu was pressuring them to support the prisoner release. But Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz told The Jerusalem Post he intended to vote against it.
"I cannot vote to free terrorist murderers, harm bereaved families, and encourage terror," Katz said. "I made my view very clear a week ago, so there is no point in pressuring me."
Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett announced that his party's ministers would vote against the prisoner release. A source close to a Yisrael Beytenu minister said the party's ministers would be permitted by their leader Avigdor Liberman to vote according to their conscience.
Deputy ministers Danny Danon and Avi Wortzman called upon ministers to vote against the proposal, which Wortzman called "dangerous and senseless." Land of Israel Caucus co-chairmen Yariv Levin (Likud) and Orit Struck (Bayit Yehudi) called the proposal "a shameful surrender to terror."
"Israel is surrendering yet again," Levin (Likud) and Struck said in a joint statement. "The pace in which the government is backtracking from its declared positions before the talks have begun is very worrying."
Ben Hartman and Reuters contributed to this report.