Israel to free 'around 80' Palestinian prisoners

Israel is poised to decide on the release of around 80 long-serving Palestinian prisoners ahead of renewed peace talks, an Israeli official said on Monday.

US Secretary of State John Kerry announced on Friday that Israeli and Palestinian negotiators had agreed to meet to prepare a resumption of direct peace talks, stalled since 2010.

"The prisoner releases will start when talks commence," the Israeli official told AFP on condition of anonymity. "We're talking about releasing them in stages."

There were "some 80 prisoners" lined up for release, all of them "pre-Oslo," the official added, referring to Palestinians imprisoned before the 1993 Oslo peace accords.

The official would not say when a decision on their release would be made, and by whom -- whether the issue would go before the government, ministers or just Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Israeli radio said Netanyahu would present the issue to his cabinet "in the next few days" ahead of the first meeting between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators expected to take place early next week in Washington.

The official could not confirm the report.

The last round of direct peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians broke down in September 2010 over the issue of Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank and east Jerusalem.

Israeli officials have hailed the agreement in principle on resuming peace talks as a "success" as it did not entail the Palestinian "preconditions" of a freeze on settlement construction or the pre-1967 borders as a basis for negotiations.

But Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas has repeatedly stressed that his demands for a freeze on settlement building on occupied land and the release of prisoners held by Israel must be met before the talks can resume.

"We stress our position that settlements have been illegal since 1967," Abbas said in the interview published on Monday, referring to the Middle East war in which the Jewish state seized the West Bank and east Jerusalem.

"Any agreement with the Israelis will be brought to a referendum," he stressed in remarks to the Jordanian government-owned newspaper Al-Rai.

On Sunday, Netanyahu reiterated his longstanding stance that any draft agreement hammered out in peace talks would be put to a referendum, drawing mixed reactions from some of his coalition partners.

Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who is also Israel's chief negotiator, said Monday that "any decision, as significant and dramatic as it might be, can suffice to be made in the government and parliament."

"General elections are the only true referendum," she told top-selling daily Yediot Aharonot. "This is what the public elected us to do -- make hard decisions."

But Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, who heads the far-right Jewish Home party, said "only the people" could decree on an issue "that could tear the nation apart."

"We demand to pass (a law necessitating a referendum) now, upon beginning a diplomatic process," he wrote on his Facebook page.

Media reports on Monday cited him as saying that if such a law did not pass, his 12-member party would not support Netanyahu's budget and effectively topple the coalition.