JERUSALEM – The Obama administration announced that the first substantive peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians in years will begin this evening in Washington, after Israeli leaders agreed Sunday to release 104 Palestinian prisoners.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki announced that the preliminary talks will be led by Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat.
Earlier Sunday, calling it painful for the entire nation, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu won a vote in his divided Cabinet to release the Palestinian prisoners, many convicted of killing Israelis, in order to restart peace talks brokered by Secretary of State John Kerry.
The list of prisoners who may be released in coming days includes Palestinian militants who threw fire bombs, in one case at a bus with children aboard; stabbed and shot civilians, including women, elderly Jews and suspected Palestinian collaborators; and ambushed and killed border guards, police, security agents and soldiers. All of them have been in prison prior to 1993; some were serving life sentences.
The Israeli public considers them terrorists with blood on their hands. Palestinians see them as freedom fighters struggling to reclaim their homeland and oust the occupiers.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and his leadership refused to return to the negotiating table without their release.
Whether it was a grudging gesture of good will, diplomatic blackmail or something in between, Netanyahu made a major concession to Kerry and the Palestinians.
In a sign of how divided Israel and this coalition government is, the vote among Netanyahus Cabinet ministers to release the prisoners was 13-7, with two abstentions.
In a parallel move, the Israeli Cabinet also approved Netanyahus call for a national referendum that would allow Israeli voters to approve or reject any peace deal he makes.
Israeli officials said the prisoners will be released in stages four times over the next nine months, with the first release to take place soon after the initial talks in Washington this week.
Erekat called it a step toward peace, and said, I hope that we can use this opportunity that the U.S. has provided for us to resume negotiations, according to The Associated Press.
The prime minister called the prisoners he was about to release depraved people, even if most of them have been in prison for more than 20 years.
This was not the first time Netanyahu has struck such a deal.
In 2011, the Israeli government traded 1,000 Palestinian and Arab Israeli prisoners for the release of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier abducted by Hamas militants near the Kerem Shalom crossing into the Gaza Strip in 2006. He had been held for five years.
In an open letter to Israeli citizens published Saturday night, Netanyahu explained, this is an incomparably difficult decision, it is painful for the bereaved families and it is painful for the entire nation and it is also very painful for me.
While most polls show a majority of Israelis support the peace process, releasing prisoners is unpopular across the political spectrum.
Netanyahu stressed that while he agreed to release prisoners, and only after talks begin, he rejected a Palestinian demand that he announce a freeze on new construction in the Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
According to Israeli media, Netanyahu told Kerry that over the next nine months, as many as 1,000 new units may be approved for construction in West Bank and East Jerusalem settlements.
Netanyahu was silent on a third Palestinian demand – that negotiations about borders for a future Palestinian state begin with the pre-1967 armistice lines.
Qaddura Fares, president of the Palestinian Prisoners Society, welcomed the prisoner release as the right decision for negotiations.
It will only help to create an atmosphere of calm. It shows that state of Israel really does want peace, he said.
As Netanyahu and his cabinet debated the release, for over six hours, a few hundred protesters, including family members of those killed by Palestinian prisoners, gathered outside of the prime ministers office during the vote and waved signs illustrated with bloody palm prints.
Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, the third most powerful politician in Netanyahus coalition government, joined the protest and said he is against the release.
Terrorists should be eliminated, not freed, Bennett said, according to the Yedioth Ahronoth news website.