JERUSALEM (Reuters) - A planned release of 26 Palestinian prisoners has provoked feuding within Israel's governing coalition, already under strain from U.S.-brokered peace talks.
The inmates, all of whom were convicted of murder in the killing of Israelis before or just after the first interim Israeli-Palestinian peace accords were signed 20 years ago, were due to go free after midnight on Tuesday.
Cutting short their life sentences has been particularly grating for many Israelis because prisoner releases were a Palestinian condition for reviving peace talks last August that few people on either side of the conflict believe will succeed.
In all, 104 long-serving prisoners will go free. A first group of 26 was let out two months ago in keeping with understandings reached during shuttle diplomacy by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.
"The release of terrorists in return for (Israeli chief negotiator) Tzipi Livni's dubious right to meet (Palestinian counterpart Saeb) Erekat is very grave," the Jewish Home party, a far-right member of the government, said in statement at the weekend.
Jewish Home, led by Naftali Bennett, then tried to get a proposal to freeze further prisoner releases past a ministerial committee, where members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party voted it down on Sunday.
"The picture is now clear: the government, unlike one of its member-parties, is acting in the national interest...this government is moving the peace process forward," Livni, head of the small, centrist Hatnuah party, wrote on her Facebook page after Jewish Home's proposed law was rejected.
The squabbling did not end there. Bennett criticised Likud ministers, saying: "The release of terrorists is immoral, it weakens Israel and endangers its citizens, and we will continue to fight it in a democratic way".
In an apparent attempt to appease Jewish Home and hardliners within Likud, government officials said new housing projects would be announced soon in West Bank settlement blocs that Israel intends to keep in any future peace deal.
Israeli political commentators suggested that Bennett, whose party has 12 of parliament's 120 seats, had latched on to the prisoners issue as a way to swing Netanyahu's traditional right-wing supporters his way and establish himself as an alternative leader for the camp.
Yuval Steinitz, Israel's strategic affairs minister and a Likud member, made clear in a radio interview on Monday that by agreeing to the prisoner releases, the government effectively had quashed a Palestinian demand to halt settlement building.
"The issue of freeing prisoners is certainly most painful for all of us. But strategically, the price of freezing construction in settlements would be much higher," Steinitz said.
For Palestinians, who view settlements that Israel has erected on land captured in the 1967 Middle East war as obstacles to a state, brethren jailed by Israel are heroes in a fight for independence.
On the other side of the divide, families of Israelis killed in Palestinian attacks held a vigil outside Ofer prison in the West Bank, where the prisoners slated for release were being held.
And at a military cemetery in Jerusalem, opponents of the release placed black signs, with a drawing of a bloody hand, on graves.
"As far as we are concerned, your death was in vain," read the placards, signed "Government of Israel".
(Editing by Angus MacSwan)