Israel approves prisoner release plan

Cabinet also backs bill requiring any deal with Palestinians to be put to referendum as US-brokered talks are set to resume

 

Israel has approved the release of 104 Arab prisoners in a move intended to facilitate the restart of peace talks with the Palestinians and end nearly three years of diplomatic standstill.

Thirteen members of prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet authorised the release, seven voted against and two abstained, a government official said.

Mr Netanyahu postponed the weekly meeting of ministers by an hour to make sure he had majority support for the measure which he described as painful but necessary to help end nearly three years of diplomatic standstill.

“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 in broadcast remarks at the start of the meeting, referring to families who have lost members in militant attacks.

“But there are moments in which tough decisions must be made for the good of the nation and this is one of those moments,” he said.

Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas has demanded the release of prisoners held since before a 1993 interim peace accord took effect. Israel has jailed thousands more Palestinians since that time.

The prisoner release would allow Mr Netanyahu to sidestep other Palestinian demands, such as a halt to Jewish settlement expansion and a guarantee that negotiations over borders will be based on boundaries from before the 1967 Middle East war, when Israel occupied the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem.

Israel wants to keep several settlement blocs and East Jerusalem, which it annexed as part of its capital in a move never recognised internationally, in any future deal.

In an appeal for public support posted on his Facebook page last night, Mr Netanyahu said the prisoners would be released in groups only after the negotiations - set to last at least nine months - begin.

The 22-member cabinet was also scheduled to approve legislation that would require a referendum on any statehood deal reached with the Palestinians involving a withdrawal from land Israel captured in the 1967 war.

The US-brokered talks, expected to reconvene in Washington as early as Tuesday, broke down in late 2010 in a dispute over Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank, which Palestinians say denies them a viable state.

Before the cabinet meeting, Mr Netanyahu told ministers from his Likud party that Israel would pay a price if peace talks did not resume, according to one official who was there.

The latest diplomatic push follows months of intense shuttle diplomacy by US secretary of state John Kerry who said a week ago the groundwork had been laid for a breakthrough, while setting no specific date for talks to restart.

Palestinians view these long-serving prisoners, convicted before the signing of the Oslo peace accords in 1993, as political prisoners whose release is long overdue.

A Palestinian official involved in the negotiations process, who could speak only on the condition of anonymity because of the delicate diplomacy under way, said the Palestinian side had given a list of all 104 pre-Oslo prisoners to Mr Kerry, who conveyed it to the Israelis.

Israel had previously balked at including 22 prisoners who are Arab citizens of Israel or residents of East Jerusalem.

Reuters

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