(photo credit: AP)
A high-level security and ministerial forum is expected to convene within the week to discuss whether Israel should release a number of Palestinian prisoners - before Cpl. Gilad Shalit is freed by the Palestinians - as a gesture on the eve of the Muslim holiday of Id al-Adha, government officials said Sunday night.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert laid the groundwork for the convening of such a meeting, and for the release of a number of prisoners, at Sunday's cabinet meeting where three key ministers - Defense Minister Amir Peretz, Vice Premier Shimon Peres, and Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz - spoke out in favor of such a gesture.
Id al-Adha falls on Sunday.
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Among the questions that the forum will have to deal with is how many prisoners it would be necessary to release to enable Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas to present it as an achievement to his people.
The officials said that the issue was discussed at length at Olmert's meting with Abbas on Saturday night, and although the two men did not bargain about numbers, questions were raised about how many prisoners the Israeli public would be willing to see released, versus how many it would take for the Palestinian public to view the release as a significant achievement.
Nevertheless, the very fact that ministers and security officials are to meet this week to discuss the issue is a significant change in Israeli policy, which up until now was that there would be no release of prisoners until Shalit was let go.
Government officials said that the possibility of releasing Tanzim leader Marwan Barghouti was not discussed at the cabinet meeting.
Olmert told the cabinet that before the Shalit kidnapping he was in favor of demonstrating "flexibility and generosity" in releasing Palestinian prisoners, but that after the kidnapping the situation changed dramatically.
He then turned to Peres, Peretz and Mofaz, who all said that they favored such a move as a gesture to Abbas. Olmert said that the idea of a prisoner release before the holiday, as has been the custom in the past, was raised at Saturday night's meeting. He said that he gave no commitments, beyond that he would bring it up with the ministers.
The cabinet, meanwhile, unanimously approved the decision made at Saturday night's meeting to release NIS 420 million ($100 million) in tax revenue to the PA, of the nearly NIS 1.25 billion that Israel has frozen since April.
Government sources said that no time frame has yet been drawn up for the transfer of the funds, and that a joint Israeli-Palestinian committee would be established to determine where the money will go. Israel wants the money to go for humanitarian purposes, and the committee is to sit and define what that means.
There is some concern that certain members of the security forces loyal to Abbas in the West Bank are on the verge of defecting to Hamas because they have not been paid salaries, and one question that will need to be answered is whether any of these funds can be used to pay salaries.
A number of committees will be re-established that were set up in March 2005 in the Sharm e-Sheikh understandings, including a US, Egyptian, Israeli, Palestinian security committee that will discuss deploying Abbasâ€š Presidential Guards - the one security apparatus in the PA that Israel has some confidence in - to the Philadelphi Corridor to combat arms smuggling, and to the northern Gaza area to fight against Kassam rocket attacks.
The cabinet also discussed Israel's policy of restraint in the face of continued Kassam rocket fire, with Mofaz saying that steps needed to be discussed to stop the firing. Peretz said that there have been cases where the IDF spotted those firing rockets before they actually launched them, but - because of the cease-fire - were prevented from taking action.
Following a security assessment in Tel Aviv on Sunday night, Peretz called for an end to the policy of restraint in the face of continued Kassam rocket attacks.
Four Kassam rockets were fired on Sunday.
"We need to strike back at the Kassam launchers," Peretz said. "We shouldn't let Islamic Jihad fire the rockets without a paying a price."
At the same time, Peretz intends to begin implementing some steps to ease restrictions on the Palestinians in the West Bank within the next week.
In the cabinet meeting, Industry and Trade Minister Eli Yishai also came out against continuing the policy of restraint, saying that the government must act immediately to stop the attacks.
Olmert, however, said that a military response to the rockets could unite the warring Hamas and Fatah factions together against Israel, something that was not in Israel's interests. It was also pointed out in the meeting that while some 50 rockets have fallen since the cease fire went into effect a month ago, the previous month 240 rockets were fired.
Meanwhile, Shin Bet head Yuval Diskin told the cabinet that Hamas was unable to defeat Fatah in the recent intra-Palestinian fighting, and as a result was unlikely to break the cease-fire with Fatah or - for that matter - the cease-fire with Israel.
Diskin said that Islamic Jihad and renegade Fatah factions were primarily responsible for the Kassam rocket fire. He also said that were elections for the PA held today, Fatah's chances of winning them would be "close to zero."