Middle East

Israeli cabinet backs release of Palestinian prisoners

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the cabinet meeting, 28 July
Image caption Mr Netanyahu faced a tough task convincing colleagues on prisoner releases

The Israeli cabinet has approved the release of dozens of Palestinian prisoners as part of US-backed efforts to resume the peace process.

PM Benjamin Netanyahu's controversial proposal had split the cabinet, with 13 voting for and seven against.

The cabinet also backed a bill requiring any peace deal with the Palestinians to be put to a referendum.

Palestinian sources have suggested peace talks, stalled since 2010, could restart next week.

'Tough decisions'

Some 104 long-term Palestinian prisoners will be released in four stages over a number of months, linked to progress in the peace process.

In addition to the votes for and against in cabinet, there were two abstentions, a government official said. One source told Associated Press that two ministers from Mr Netanyahu's Likud Party voted no.

Some of the prisoners have carried out militant attacks that claimed Israeli lives and were jailed for up to 30 years.

Sunday's cabinet meeting was delayed by an hour as Mr Netanyahu sought support.

Image caption Israelis opposed to the release of Palestinian prisoners protested outside the PM's office

"This moment is not easy for me, is not easy for the cabinet ministers, and is not easy especially for the bereaved families, whose feelings I understand," Mr Netanyahu said shortly before the meeting.

"But there are moments in which tough decisions must be made for the good of the nation and this is one of those moments."

Ahead of the meeting, Deputy Defence Minister Danny Danon condemned the proposal, telling Israel Radio: "This is a political mistake, it is an ethical mistake. The message we are sending the terrorists is that we eventually free them as heroes."

But Kadoura Fares, the head of a Palestinian advocacy group for prisoners, said that there would be "no negotiations unless they are all released".

The bill on a referendum is seen as a conciliatory gesture to right-wing members of the government who are wary of concessions Israel might have to make during peace process negotiations.

A statement from Mr Netanyahu's office said that it was "important that on such historic decisions every citizen should vote directly".

"Any agreement which may be reached in negotiations will be put to a referendum," the office said.

The Israeli government will seek "urgent and important" approval for the bill, asking parliament to fast-track its passage.

It has been suggested by Palestinian sources, although not confirmed officially, that peace talks could start again in the US next week.

US Secretary of State John Kerry announced on 19 July that the talks would begin "in the next week or so".

He said the parties had "reached an agreement that establishes a basis for resuming direct final status negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis".

The Palestinians have insisted Israel recognise pre-1967 ceasefire lines as borders of a Palestinian state, subject to some negotiation, before any talks commence, but this is something that has been opposed by right-wing members of Mr Netanyahu's coalition.

The issue of settlement-building halted the last direct talks in September 2010.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has said he will also put any peace deal to a referendum.