Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will ask his cabinet today to agree to release 104 Palestinians convicted of attacking Israelis as a gesture to start nine months of peace talks.
Leading members of Netanyahu’s governing coalition voiced opposition to the release, which is to take place in stages after talks begin. Regional Cooperation Minister Silvan Shalom said negotiations are to begin Tuesday in Washington after a three-year breakdown.
“From time to time, prime ministers are called on to make decisions that go against public opinion -- when the matter is important for the country,” Netanyahu said in a statement yesterday. “At the present time, it seems to me that it is very important for the state of Israel to enter into a diplomatic process.”
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry spent four days this month prodding Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to resume talks. He called Abbas this weekend to emphasize President Barack Obama’s support of a prompt return to negotiations, the Palestinian Wafa news agency said.
The talks are “important both in order to exhaust the chance of ending the conflict with the Palestinians and in order to establish Israel’s position in the complex international reality around us,” he said.
The decision to free prisoners, some of them serving life sentences for deadly attacks on Israeli civilians, is drawing strong opposition from within Netanyahu’s government.
“Terrorists need to be killed, not freed,” said Economy and Commerce Minister Naftali Bennett in a post on his Facebook page. Bennett, whose Jewish Home party is the third-biggest faction in the coalition, said he would vote against the deal. His party has promised to bolt the government if it reaches an agreement to create a Palestinian state.
Netanyahu will be supported by Finance Minister Yair Lapid, whose Yesh Atid part is the second-largest coalition faction and supports peacemaking. “It’s true that we made no promise that the talks will succeed, it’s true that the continuous failures of the past have been painful, but we can’t stop trying,” Lapid said in an e-mailed statement.
Direct peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians have been suspended since September 2010, when Netanyahu declined to extend a partial settlement construction freeze in the West Bank and Abbas refused to negotiate unless all building on land they seek for a future state was halted.
The Palestinians say they want to build their state in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. They say continued Israeli settlement building on lands they seek for a future state is a sign of bad faith, while Netanyahu has said talks should not be subject to conditions.
The Israeli leader said that while he was “not prepared to accept the Palestinians’ demand for withdrawals and freezes as conditions for entering negotiations,” freeing the prisoners was a “necessary decision.”
The cabinet is also scheduled today to discuss whether any final peace agreement with the Palestinians will require approval in a national referendum. “Every citizen must be allowed to directly influence our future and our fate on such a crucial issue,” Netanyahu said. Previous peace agreements were ratified by the cabinet and parliament.
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