Israel's government has endorsed a plan to restart peace talks with the Palestinians and is offering a goodwill gesture that is controversial in the country.
Israel's Cabinet has approved the release of 104 Palestinian prisoners to clear the way for new peace talks. The release was a Palestinian condition for resuming negotiations that collapsed in 2010.
Most of the prisoners were involved in deadly terrorist attacks and have been jailed since before Israel and the Palestinians signed the landmark Oslo Peace Accords in 1993.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said it is a difficult decision for him and the Cabinet, and especially for bereaved families. He said difficult decisions are necessary, though, to achieve peace.
Netanyahu said negotiations are important to Israel in order to end the conflict with the Palestinians, and in light of strategic threats from the civil war in Syria and Iran’s nuclear program.
In an apparent attempt to ease public concern about possible territorial concessions, the Cabinet also voted to put any final agreement on the creation of a Palestinian state to a national referendum.
The prisoner release faced fierce opposition in the Cabinet, and the final vote was 13 to seven, with two abstentions. Naftali Bennett of the hawkish Jewish Home Party voted against. He said those who demand the release of murderers of women and children are not a partner for peace.
But Kadoura Fares, who heads a Palestinian advocacy group for prisoners, said the men to be released have served long enough, and have renounced violence.
He told Israel Radio that the prisoners carried out attacks more than 20 years ago, and today support the peace process.
Israeli and Palestinian chief negotiators are due to meet this week in Washington, D.C., to hammer out a framework for the formal resumption of peace talks.