- Associated Press - Sunday, July 28, 2013

JERUSALEM (AP) — The Israeli Cabinet approved the release of 104 long-held Palestinian prisoners Sunday, clearing a hurdle toward a possible resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks after five years of paralysis.

The prisoner release is part of a push by U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry to bring the two sides back to the table. Sunday’s 13-7 vote, with two abstentions, marks his first visible achievement after six months of shuttle diplomacy.

As a next step, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators are set to hold preliminary talks in Washington on Tuesday, to be followed by up to nine months of negotiations on a peace deal.

Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, welcomed the Cabinet vote as “a step toward peace.”

The fate of Palestinian prisoners is emotionally charged for both sides. Palestinians tend to view prisoners as heroes who made sacrifices in the struggle for independence. Most Israelis view them as cold-blooded terrorists.

The Cabinet approved the release in principle of the 104 prisoners, said a government official who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with briefing regulations. Under the deal brokered by Mr. Kerry, the prisoners would be freed in four stages over several months. Each step would be linked to progress in negotiations.

According to a list provided by the Palestinians, the prisoners have served between 19 and 30 years for involvement in deadly attacks on Israelis. Their release would go a long way toward giving Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas a popular mandate to resume negotiations with Israel, despite widespread skepticism on both sides after 20 years of intermittent talks that produced no results.

On the Israeli side, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faced stiff opposition from within his governing coalition, including his own Likud Party. Two Likud ministers and those from the pro-settler Jewish Home Party voted against a prisoner release.

Outside the government complex, hundreds of Israelis who lost loved ones in Palestinian attacks demonstrated against the release.

Mr. Netanyahu told the Cabinet that releasing prisoners involved in deadly attacks was difficult for him.

“This is not an easy moment for me, and is not easy for the ministers in the government and is especially difficult for the bereaved families,” Mr. Netanyahu said. “But there are moments where I need to make tough decisions for the good of the country, and this is one of those moments.”

“I believe that resuming the political process at this time is important for Israel,” he said, noting that any peace deal would have to be approved in a national referendum.

Along with the prisoner release, ministers also authorized the resumption of talks with the Palestinians and agreed that a team led by the prime minister would oversee negotiations.

They approved the draft of an amended bill that would require a referendum on any partition deal with the Palestinians.

A resumption of peace talks is not yet assured, though.

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