Netanyahu postponed the weekly meeting of ministers on Sunday by an hour to make sure he had majority support for the measure which he described as painful but necessary to help end nearly three years of diplomatic standstill between Israel and Palestine.
"This moment is not easy for me, is not easy for the cabinet ministers, and is not easy especially for the bereaved families, whose feelings I understand," Netanyahu said in broadcast at the start of the meeting, referring to families who have lost members in militant attacks. "But there are moments in which tough decisions must be made for the good of the nation and this is one of those moments," he said.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has demanded the release of prisoners held since before a 1993 interim peace accord took effect. Israel has jailed thousands more Palestinians since then, many for carrying out deadly attacks. The prisoner release would allow Netanyahu to sidestep other Palestinian demands, such as a halt to Jewish settlement expansion and a guarantee that negotiations over borders will be based on boundaries from before the 1967 Middle East war, when Israel captured the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem.
Israel wants to keep several settlement blocs and East Jerusalem, which it annexed as part of its capital in a move never recognised internationally, in any future deal. In an appeal for public support posted on his Facebook page on Saturday night, Netanyahu said the prisoners would be released in groups only after the negotiations – set to last at least nine months – begin. The 22-member cabinet was also scheduled to approve legislation that would require a referendum on any statehood deal reached with the Palestinians involving a withdrawal from land Israel captured in the 1967 war.
The US-brokered talks, expected to reconvene in Washington as early as Tuesday, broke down in late 2010 in a dispute over Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank, which Palestinians say denies them a viable state. Before the cabinet meeting, Netanyahu told ministers from his Likud party that Israel would pay a price if peace talks did not resume, according to one official who was there.
The latest diplomatic push follows months of intense shuttle diplomacy by US secretary of state John Kerry who said a week ago the groundwork had been laid for a breakthrough, while setting no specific date for talks to restart. Additional reporting by Ari Rabinovitch. Editing by Louise Ireland