JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel said Saturday that he had agreed to release 104 Palestinian prisoners, most of whom have served 20 years or more for attacks on Israelis, to pave the way for a resumption of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in Washington, D.C., in the coming days.
Netanyahu took the unusual measure of issuing what he called “an open letter to the citizens of Israel” to explain the move, which many Israelis oppose, ahead of a Cabinet vote Sunday.
Reports of a prisoner release had been circulating for weeks, but this was the first confirmation by the prime minister of the number expected to be freed. Netanyahu’s letter did not give details regarding the identities of those to be released or the timing, but said the release would be carried out in stages after the start of negotiations and in accordance with their progress.
The talks were expected to begin Tuesday after months of shuttle diplomacy by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.
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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.
“From time to time prime ministers are called on to make decisions that go against public opinion — when the matter is important for the country,” he wrote. He added 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 Schalit, an Israeli soldier who had been held captive in Gaza for five years.
An Israeli government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said many of those who remained in Israeli jails, such as the 104 chosen for early release, had been involved in particularly gruesome acts.
“The goal here is to augment the political dialogue with confidence-building measures,” the official said, adding that the Cabinet was expected to approve the release.
But the prisoner issue is the one that has inflamed passions on both sides. Palestinians view these long-serving prisoners, convicted before the signing of the Oslo peace accords in 1993, as political prisoners whose release is long overdue.
A Palestinian official involved in the negotiations process, who would speak only on condition of anonymity, said the Palestinian side had given a list of all 104 pre-Oslo prisoners to Kerry. “This is the biggest achievement we will have had this year,” the Palestinian official said.