JERUSALEM (AFP) -- The Israeli government on Sunday approved the release of long-serving Palestinian and Israeli-Arab prisoners, to coincide with the resumption of peace talks, public radio said.
It said that the 22-member cabinet approved Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's proposal by 13 votes to seven with two abstentions.
PLO negotiator Saeb Erekat welcomed the decision ahead of US-brokered talks with Israel that he is to attend in Washington.
"We welcome the Israeli government's decision to release the prisoners," Erekat told AFP.
"We consider this an important step and hope to be able to seize the opportunity provided by the American administration's efforts."
Netanyahu's office said in a statement that the cabinet approved peace talks with the Palestinians but without elaborating where or when.
The statement also did not announce that a prisoner release had been approved, only mentioning the formation of a committee on the issue.
"The government approved the opening of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians... and mandated a ministerial committee for the release of prisoners during the course of the talks," it said.
The planned releases have stirred protests from Israeli victims' families, settlers and Netanyahu's hardline coalition partners.
In Jerusalem, dozens of Israelis gathered outside the government complex to protest the decision to release Palestinian prisoners, Israeli media reported.
The demonstrators chanted: "You do not release murderers of children" and "Bibi is a coward."
Leader of the Jewish Home party Naftali Bennet joined the protest, calling the proposed prisoner release a "disgrace" and saying "terrorists should be eliminated, not freed," Ynet reported.
"Releasing terrorists for peace is like trying to put out a fire with gasoline. It is dangerous, immoral and irresponsible," settler leader Dani Dayan said in a statement.
Ahead of the talks, the Israeli cabinet has also approved an "urgent and important" bill which would require a referendum for a peace treaty in some circumstances.
A cabinet briefing paper said the government would ask parliament to fast-track its passage into law.
If adopted, the bill would oblige a referendum in cases where territory over which Israel claims sovereignty is ceded in a peace agreement or by a cabinet decision.
While a plebiscite would not be a requirement in the case of Israeli withdrawal from the rest of the West Bank, it would apply to changes in any part of East Jerusalem, which Israel occupied in the 1967 Six-Day War and annexed in a move never recognized by the international community.
Qadura Fares, head of the Palestinian Prisoners' Society which tracks the treatment of Palestinians in Israeli jails, warned on Sunday there would be no peace talks unless all 104 prisoners returned to their homes.
"If they don't free all of them, there will be no negotiations," he told public radio.Ma'an staff contributed to this report