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Israel votes to free 104 Palestinian prisoners

Move clears way for peace talks; Washington will host negotiations

Benjamin Netanyahu said “tough decisions must be made for the good of the country.”

Benjamin Netanyahu said “tough decisions must be made for the good of the country.”

JERUSALEM — Israeli and Palestinian negotiators will begin preliminary peace talks in Washington on Monday, a day after the Israeli Cabinet cleared the last obstacle to the talks by voting to approve the release of 104 Palestinian prisoners.

The prisoner release, which will be carried out in stages depending on the progress of negotiations, is an unpopular move with many Israelis, but one that the Palestinian leadership has insisted upon.

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu worked over the weekend to convince Israelis that a resumption of the peace process was a vital Israeli interest. After hours of deliberations Sunday, 13 ministers voted in favor, seven opposed the release, and two abstained.

After the vote, the US State Department announced that the initial talks would begin Monday, but it remains unclear whether they will lead to a formal resumption of negotiations that broke down in 2008.

The return to direct contacts is a notable achievement for Secretary of State John Kerry, who has conducted shuttle diplomacy in the region for months. Kerry called Netanyahu and the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, after the Cabinet vote and formally invited them to send teams to Washington.

“Both leaders have demonstrated a willingness to make difficult decisions that have been instrumental in getting to this point,” Kerry said. “We are grateful for their leadership.”

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the teams would meet Monday and Tuesday to ‘‘develop a procedural plan for how the parties can proceed with the negotiations in the coming months.’’ Talks on a final peace deal are to last six to nine months.

The chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, and Abbas aide Mohammed Shtayyeh will represent the Palestinians, and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and adviser Yitzhak Molcho will attend for Israel.

Erekat described the decision in a statement as “an overdue step’’ toward the implementation of the Sharm el-Sheik agreement of 1999. “We welcome this decision, 14 years later,” he said.

In previous rounds of Mideast peace talks, the outlines of a deal emerged: a Palestinian state in most of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem, lands captured by Israel in 1967, with border adjustments to enable Israel to annex land with a majority of nearly 600,000 settlers.

Those negotiations broke down before the sides could tackle the tougher questions of a partition of Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees and their descendants, now several million people.

Abbas said over the weekend that Kerry assured him the US invitation to the negotiators will say border talks are based on the 1967 line. Netanyahu did not say Sunday whether he has dropped his longstanding opposition to that demand.

The Palestinian prisoners, most of whom have served at least 20 years for deadly attacks on Israelis, are to be released in batches if progress is made in the talks.

“This moment is not easy for me,” Netanyahu said, according to a statement from his office. “It is not easy for the ministers. It is not easy especially for the families, the bereaved families, whose heart I understand. But there are moments in which tough decisions must be made for the good of the country, and this is one of those moments.”

As the Cabinet meeting got underway, scores of Israeli protesters gathered outside the prime minister’s office, including people whose relatives were killed in terrorist acts. The protesters carried signs bearing the names and portraits of victims.

“It rips our heart out that they are aiding and abetting the terrorists,” said Yehudit Tayar, one of the protesters.

Netanyahu will lead a team of five ministers who will oversee the release of Palestinian prisoners during the peace talks. But he deferred any public decision on whether those to be released would include Arab citizens of Israel, a longstanding point of dispute, saying that any such release would be brought to a Cabinet vote.

On Saturday evening, Netanyahu took the unusual step of issuing what he called “an open letter to the citizens of Israel” to explain the contentious move.

Netanyahu began his letter, which was posted on the prime minister’s website and disseminated through the Israeli news media, with an acknowledgment of the unpopularity of the gesture, which many Israelis view as a painful concession with nothing guaranteed in return.

The letter noted that the decision “is painful for the bereaved families, it is painful for the entire nation, and it is also very painful for me — it collides with the incomparably important value of justice.”

Over the years, thousands of Palestinian prisoners have been exchanged for Israeli soldiers who had been taken captive, or for the bodies of abducted soldiers.

During his previous term in office, Netanyahu reached an agreement with Hamas, the Islamist militant group that governs Gaza, and exchanged more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners for Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier who had been held captive in Gaza for five years.

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