Israel cabinet votes on Palestinian prisoner release

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will seek cabinet approval on Sunday for a contentious release of 104 veteran Palestinian and Israeli-Arab prisoners, to coincide with the resumption of peace talks.

While the names of the prisoners have yet to be officially published, or even revealed to ministers, they reportedly include militants convicted of killing Israeli women and children or Palestinians suspected of collaborating with Israel.

An unofficial list published by Almagor, a group representing Israeli victims of Palestinian attacks, said that candidates for release also included those jailed for acts such as the killing of a creditor, murder during car theft and a man convicted of strangling his wife whom he suspected of adultery.

The planned releases have brought protests from Israeli victims' families and from Netanyahu's hardline coalition partners.

The premier said in an open letter published on his Facebook page that he too had deep misgivings.

"This is an incomparably difficult decision," he wrote. "It is painful for the bereaved families, it is painful for the entire nation and it is also very painful for me."

Israeli media reported on Sunday that the far-right Jewish Home party intends to vote against the plan, while the equally hardline Yisrael Beitenu had given its ministers a free vote.

There were rumblings within Netanyahu's own right-wing Likud party too, with deputy defence minister Danny Danon urging the party's ministers to vote "no" in Sunday's cabinet session, which begins at 0700 GMT.

"I say that this is a diplomatic mistake, a moral mistake,' he told public radio.

"The message we are giving the terrorists is that, at the end of the day, we are freeing them as heroes."

Commentators nevertheless expected Netanyahu to win the vote, albeit by a narrow margin.

A Palestinian official told AFP on Saturday that the US-brokered renewal of peace talks, stalled since September 2010, would open in Washington on Tuesday.

Qadura Fares, head of the Palestinian Prisoners' Club which tracks the well-being of Palestinians in Israeli jails, said on Sunday that there would be no talks unless all 104 prisoners returned to their homes.

"If they don't free all of them, there will be no negotiations," he told public radio.

In past deals, Israel has expelled some freed prisoners from the occupied West Bank or annexed east Jerusalem to the Gaza Strip or abroad but Fares said that would not be acceptable this time.

"Expulsion is punishment," he said. "These people. who are now over 50 years old, all of them sick, need to be released to their homes."

The cabinet will hear a formal statement from Netanyahu on the resumption of peace talks and mandate a ministerial committee to handle the prisoner release, the government website said.

Israeli news website Ynet said Netanyahu would head the prisoner committee deciding which prisoners are to be freed and when.

The cabinet is also set to draw up a bill to submit any peace treaty with the Palestinians to a referendum.

Such a vote would be a final endorsement of a treaty after ratification by the government and parliament.

The draft is seen as a gesture to right-wing ministers apprehensive of concessions that could be demanded of Israel in the talks.

A cabinet briefing paper said the government saw approval of the new draft as "urgent and important" and said it would be asking parliament to fast-track its passage into law.