The Prime Minister's Office released a statement saying, "This is a gesture and a trust-building move aimed at bolstering the moderates in the Palestinian Authority and the peace process."
Among the prisoners who are slated to be released are two Palestinians who were sentenced to long prison terms about 30 years ago. One of them actually murdered Israelis and the other sent murderers. The names of the rest of the prisoners will be brought to a ministerial committee for approval.
"This is a gesture for Abu Mazen (Abbas) ahead of the holiday of Ramadan," said a senior official at the Prime Minister's Office.
Sixteen ministers voted in favor of the proposal, while four opposed it. A source at the Prime Minister's Office said that according to estimates presented by the defense establishment, the risk that the prisoners with blood on their hand will return to terror "is very very small."
The final number of the prisoners to be released will be determined on Monday following a discussion at the ministerial committee, as some of the prisoners may not be pardoned. The prisoners are expected to be released from jail by the end of the month.
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who supported the release, said following the vote that "when Israel releases prisoners only for those who use force, it conveys a message that it gives in to pressure and that using force and kidnapping are the only ways to acts against it. This is a message which conveys weakness. Those who only release Hamas prisoners bolster Hamas."
Yishai: Stop making virtural gestures
Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Eli Yishai warned Saturday night that "releasing hundreds of murderers as virtual gestures to the Palestinians will only move (kidnapped soldier) Gilad Shalit's release further away."
"The gestures have become one-sided and unidirectional and are all done by Israel. After it has become clear that they are inefficient, the government must not be seen as groveling. This fails to serve Israel and only harms us. Any move humiliating Israel in the eyes of the Palestinian moves Shalit's release further away," Yishai said.
The Prime Minister's Office strongly rejected Yishai's remarks, stating that "not one of those released is on the lists of prisoners demanded by Hamas in return for Gilad Shalit. None of them will be included in future lists as well."
At the beginning of the month, Israel released five Palestinian youths sentenced to short prison terms for stone throwing. They were freed as part of a prisoner exchange deal with Hizbullah.
One of the teens, 15-year-old Zakariya Shurbaji, thanked Hizbullah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah after his release. "I say thank you to Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah for all the efforts he made on our behalf," he said.
At the start of the cabinet meeting, the Treasury presented the ministers with two alternatives for the state budget: A budget invested mostly in security-related issues, or a welfare budget.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert expressed his dissatisfaction with Kadima ministers' conduct in regards to the state budget, saying that "the ministers have a collective responsibility in terms of the state budget."
The prime minister went on to clarify that he will act "with full force to approve the budget, because this government wants to continue to exist despite the political events."