JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged his skeptical coalition partners Sunday to agree to free Palestinian prisoners as part of U.S efforts to resume peace talks, calling the deal a "tough decision" that he took for the good of the country.
He spoke at a meeting of the Cabinet called to vote on the prisoner release, while hundreds of Israelis who lost loved ones in Palestinian attacks protested outside the government complex against the move. Among the protesters was the head of the Netanyahu parliamentary coalition's third most powerful party.
Along with the prisoner release, ministers are also voting on authorizing the resumption of talks with the Palestinians and will set up a team led by the prime minister to oversee negotiations. They approved the draft of an amended bill that would require a national referendum on any partition deal with the Palestinians
"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," Netanyahu said at the beginning of the meeting. "But there are moments where I need to make tough decisions for the good of the country and this is one of those moments," Netanyahu said.
"I believe that resuming the political process at this time is important for Israel," he said. "Every agreement reached in negotiations will be determined in a referendum. It is important that in fateful decisions like these every citizen will vote directly in matters that determine the future of the state."
Netanyahu's decision to fast-track the referendum bill has triggered contradictory speculation. Some say this shows the lifelong hawk is serious about a deal this time and wants to silence opposition by ultra-nationalists in his Likud party and his coalition from the outset. Others suspect he is trying to create new obstacles to any agreement.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry shuttled between Israeli and Palestinian leaders for months seeking a breakthrough and announced last week during his sixth visit to the region that the sides were willing to meet to discuss renewing talks.
Preliminary talks are set to begin Tuesday in Washington, followed by nine months of talks in the region on setting up a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
The Palestinians long refused to return to the negotiating table unless Israel agreed to several preconditions. Israel frequently called for talks to resume without preconditions, insisting that all core issues should be resolved through dialogue.
At issue on Sunday is a longtime Palestinian demand that prisoners who were arrested before the start of the so-called Oslo talks on interim peace deals in the early 1990s be freed.
After decades of conflict the fate of the prisoners is emotionally charged. Most Palestinians see the prisoners as heroes. Most Israelis view them as cold-blooded terrorists.
Kadoura Fares, head of a Palestinian advocacy group for prisoners, told Israel Radio that the Palestinian president had agreed for them to be released in batches starting in September but Fares warned that "there will no negotiations unless they are all released."
The Palestinians want 104 prisoners released. Israeli media have reported that among them is a Palestinian who threw a firebomb into a car in 1987, burning a pregnant woman to death and injuring several children, one of whom later died of his wounds. Others were involved in deadly shooting and bombing attacks.
Netanyahu faces opposition from within his own party for the prisoner release.
Hundreds of relatives of those killed by the prisoners protested the release outside parliament before the vote. Families held pictures of slain loved ones and chanted, "Terrorists must not be freed."
Netanyahu's major coalition partner Naftali Bennett of the Jewish Home Party was at the rally. "Whoever demands the killers of women and children to be freed are not worthy to be called a partner," he said, referring to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. "We have nothing to negotiate with he who praises the killers of women and children," Bennett said. He said his party will vote against the release.
Bennett has already threatened to pull his party, the coalition's third largest, out of the government altogether if the prime minister agrees to other Palestinian demands, like the condition that Israel's pre-1967 border serve as a baseline for negotiations.
Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon condemned the deal. "This is a political mistake, it is an ethical mistake, the message we are sending the terrorists is that we eventually free them as heroes," he told Israel Radio.
Deputy Foreign Minister Zeev Elkin told the station that Israel wants peace talks but that it shouldn't have to capitulate to Palestinian demands in order for them to resume.
"The Palestinians need to be interested in talks as much as we are so blackmailing us on this issue is a big problem. The concept that releasing terrorists promotes peace is twisted," he said.
Other Israeli leaders said it is a necessary move in order to promote peace talks. "This is a painful decision ... but it's a step that will strengthen Israel strategically," opposition leader Shelly Yachimovich of the Labor party said. She called on Netanyahu "to listen to the "majority of the public in Israel" that want a political solution to the conflict and "not to be led by extremists in his government."
Israel has a history of releasing Palestinian prisoners, including those involved in attacks. In 2011, it released some 1,000 Palestinians for a single Israeli soldier held by Gaza militants.
Despite considerable opposition in Israel to prisoner releases, polls indicate a majority support a resumption of peace talks. Yuval Diskin, former head of Israel's domestic security agency Shin Bet, expressed that ambivalence.
Diskin told Channel 10 on Friday that both Israel and the Palestinians need to make "dramatic decisions" for peace and warned that the upcoming round of talks may be the last chance for a deal.