JERUSALEM — Responding to a close Israeli Cabinet vote to release 104 Palestinian prisoners, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced Sunday that both sides would meet in Washington today to relaunch long-stalled direct peace talks.
Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni was expected to begin preliminary talks with chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, U.S. and Israeli officials said.
A spokesman for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas confirmed that he had accepted Kerry's invitation to send Erekat to participate in what the State Department described as a preliminary meeting to establish a "procedural work plan" for negotiations in coming months.
Kerry, who had made the resumption of direct Israeli-Palestinian talks one of his top priorities, thanked Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Abbas for their cooperation.
"Both leaders have demonstrated a willingness to make difficult decisions that have been instrumental in getting to this point," Kerry said in a statement.
Netanyahu had to work much harder than he anticipated to lobby his right-wing coalition partners to approve the prisoner release, which Palestinians demanded in exchange for returning to the negotiating table.
The vote was delayed by several hours Sunday as the prime minister pressured reluctant Cabinet members to support the measure, which will set free dozens of Palestinians convicted by Israel in the 1980s and 1990s of terrorist attacks against Israelis. Thirteen of Netanyahu's 22 Cabinet members voted in favor with seven opposed and two abstentions.
"This moment is not easy for me," Netanyahu said after the vote. "It is not easy for the ministers. … But there are moments in which tough decisions must be made for the good of the country and this is one of those moments."
The names of the 104 prisoners have apparently not been determined. Netanyahu formed a committee of Cabinet members, which he will lead, to identify the prisoners to be released and set the timetable. Prisoners are expected to be set free in four stages over the next nine months, but releases will be contingent upon progress made at the negotiating table, Netanyahu said.