"Ordering the Palestinian prisoners' release has been one of the hardest decisions I have ever had to make as prime minister," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Monday, following the political and public firestorm created by the government's decision to forge ahead with the second phase of the goodwill gesture assured to the Palestinian Authority ahead of the resumption of the peace talks in August.
As the stalled peace talks resumed, Israel pledged to release 104 Palestinian prisoners, in four stages. The 26 prisoners included in the second phase of the plan are scheduled to be released late Tuesday night.
"I am sure that any prime minister who has ever had to make a similar decision in the past has agonized over it as well, given the injustice of seeing these heinous murderers freed before they have finished serving their sentences in full," Netanyahu said.
"My heart goes out to the bereaved families. This decision was a necessary evil, dictated by the reality we live in. We must navigate a complex international arena that presents us with multiple challenges. It mandates that we consider various factors and do what is best for the State of Israel."
According to an Israel Radio report, Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz added that from a strategic perspective, the price of a settlement construction freeze is much higher than the price of releasing prisoners.
Netanyahu also slammed a move led by Habayit Hayehudi Chairman Naftali Bennett, whose party presented the Knesset's Constitution, Law and Justice Committee with a bill meant to prevent the future release of any Palestinian prisoners in similar gestures.
"Once the government has made a decision, all government members must act responsibly and sensibly, and maintain a long-term perspective," he said.
Bennett's proposal met with harsh criticism from across the political spectrum, especially over the party's apparent "targeting" of Justice Minister Tzipi Livni. Over the weekend, and ahead of Sunday's vote on the prisoners' release, Habayit Hayehudi issued a statement saying the move was the result of Livni's "dubious meetings" with Chief Palestinian Negotiator Saeb Erekat.
"The justice minister was the target of blatant incitement from within the government, as if her being a government member is the reason these murderers are being released," MK Meir Sheetrit (Hatnuah) said.
"The political Right has agreed to the prisoners' release. Anything else they might say is nothing but a hypocritical façade, meant to cover up the Right's political sham and enable them to remain in the government," MK Isaac Herzog (Labor) said.
Sunday's cabinet meeting saw Interior Minister Gideon Sa'ar (Likud) also slam Bennett's move, saying, "If you find the prisoners' release so terrible, you should resign."
Culture and Sport Minister Limor Livnat criticized Bennett, saying, "Once the government has made a decision you cannot lash out at it or at one of the ministers. It is an unworthy act."
Livni said Habayit Hayehudi was "trying to make cynical use of a situation the government has already ruled on."
Bennett dismissed the criticism, telling his party, "We are witnessing an onslaught against Habayit Hayehudi. The goal here is clear -- to silence us, to tame us and to see us become part of the herd mentality. Unfortunately, we have a different opinion."
Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said Israel had agreed to release the prisoners in an effort to advance peace talks.
"This decision by the government of Israel is not an easy decision. On the contrary, to release the murderers of innocent civilians is a painful and difficult decision, which we are taking only because we want to give the peace talks with the Palestinians a chance," Regev said. He added that it was also time for the Palestinian leadership to take steps toward peace.