JERUSALEM (AFP) – As Israeli and Palestinian negotiators headed to Washington for the resumption of peace talks on Monday, most Israeli newspapers hit out at the decision to free 104 prisoners in return.
"The murderers will go free," was the top-selling daily Yediot Aharonot's front-page headline after the cabinet agreed to release the veteran Palestinian and Israeli Arab prisoners, many of them convicted militants.
In a tense session lasting more than five hours, ministers on Sunday endorsed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's proposal to release the 104 prisoners imprisoned before the 1993 Oslo peace accords as a gesture to the Palestinians.
Media reports say that many of them have Israeli blood on their hands and that while the vast majority are Palestinians, a few are Israeli citizens.
The names of those to be freed have yet to be officially published, or even revealed to cabinet ministers, but Israeli and Palestinian groups have published their own lists of those in prison for more than 20 years.
They include petrol bombers whose attacks on buses killed Israeli women and children, perpetrators of fatal stabbings on city streets and the makers of bombs planted on buses and in the main Jerusalem produce market.
Yediot columnist Nahum Barnea compared the release to the October 2010 exchange of 1,027 prisoners for the freedom of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.
"The early release of terrorists is disturbing to any decent person," he wrote.
"The images of remorseless murderers celebrating on the way to the bus are a humiliating, agonising, infuriating sight.
"The Palestinians did not give anything this time, except the willingness to hold talks on holding talks. It does not take much imagination to guess what Netanyahu would have said about this, had someone else been prime minister," Barnea added.
Israeli and Palestinian negotiators were to meet in Washington later on Monday, along with US officials, after months of dogged shuttle diplomacy by Secretary of State John Kerry secured a resumption of talks after a three-year hiatus.
"Here we go again," the Jerusalem Post headlined over an analysis by its diplomatic correspondent Herb Keinon.
"These murderers will be hailed as heroes in Hebron and Ramallah and Jenin," he wrote.
"Parades will be held in their honour, flowers thrown at the bus carrying them home, poems written about their 'glorious' exploits.
"If the Palestinians are indeed serious about the upcoming round of talks, they need to make that apparent to the Israeli public," he added.
"One way to do this is not to celebrate the release of terrorists who threw petrol bombs into buses and incinerated innocent men, women and children."
Maariv analyst Shalom Yerushalmi shared the general media sense of outrage.
"As always, the government has chosen the worst option," he wrote.
"Prior to going to the negotiations in Washington, the Israeli government made a decision to free terrorists who have committed terrible crimes against innocent civilians, many of whom were teenagers and children.
"This tears at the heart of each one of us, regardless of political views."
The left-leaning Haaretz daily grudgingly welcomed the cabinet decision.
"The Israeli government bumped into reality on Sunday," diplomatic correspondent Barak Ravid wrote.
"Like a drunk driver heading for a wall at full speed only to get a grip on himself at the last moment and hit the brakes, most government ministers came to their senses and voted in favour of releasing prisoners in order to enable the renewal of talks with the Palestinians."