(photo credit: AP)
Despite the objection of coalition members Shas and Israel Beiteinu, the cabinet approved on Monday a list of 441 Palestinian prisoners to be released ahead of the Annapolis conference.
As expected, ministers from Shas voted against the release, as did Minister of Strategic Affairs Avigdor Lieberman, Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz and Tourism Minister Yitzhak Aharonovich.
Like past prisoner releases, the move is intended as a goodwill gesture to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
An inter-ministerial committee compiled the list, consisting of Fatah affiliates, none of whom are convicted of murdering Jews.
Earlier, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told the cabinet that he would remove all unauthorized outposts in the West Bank, pledging to meet a key commitment under the "road map" peace plan, a government spokeswoman said.
Olmert also said Israel would not build any new settlements in the West Bank, though he stopped short of promising a freeze on construction in existing settlements. The road map calls for a halt to all settlement activity.
"Let's be straight, we committed ourselves in the road map not to build new settlements and we will not build any," Olmert was quoted as saying by his spokeswoman, Miri Eisin.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Olmert's gesture falls far short of Israel's commitments. He noted that a string of Israeli leaders have maintained that Israel should be allowed to build in existing settlements to account for "natural growth."
"He omitted from the Israeli obligation in the road map that the Israeli government must freeze all settlement activity, including natural growth," Erekat said. "Either it's a 100 percent settlement freeze or no settlement freeze. There is nothing in the middle."
Olmert and Abbas were scheduled to meet around 2:30 p.m. at the prime minister's official residence in Jerusalem to debate the US- sponsored conference. According to the London-based Al-Quds al-Arabi the two will discuss the outline of an American statement drafted by the US State Department, which would be presented at the parley.
The American statement would reportedly supplant the joint Israeli-Palestinian statement that the two sides have all but given up on hammering out ahead of Annapolis.
The Prime Minister's Office denied the report, Army Radio said.
At the start of the weekly cabinet meeting, Olmert said that the upcoming Annapolis conference would be important, despite the fact that no negotiations would be taking place there.
"This meeting, as I have said more than once, is not a conference for negotiations. It is an important meeting, initiated by US President George Bush and it seems that a sufficient number of representatives from countries around the world will also attend," he said.
"I do not recommend that anyone overstate its importance and create exaggerated expectations but one certainly cannot understate the importance of the fact that the US President and, with him, the leaders of the most important countries in the world, are convening a meeting of such broad international stature in order to support the direct negotiations between us and the Palestinians," continued the prime minister.
Olmert went on to say that the negotiations will begin after Annapolis, stressing that those talks "will be very intensive, very serious and will deal with all the substantive issues that are an inseparable part of the process, which must lead to a solution of national states for two peoples."
In contrast, Strategic Affairs Minister Avigdor Lieberman said that "it is clear" peace negotiations with the Palestinians have reached a dead end.
Lieberman told the cabinet that reports from the negotiating team showed that the "minimum [demands] of the Palestinians are more than the maximum [concessions] of Meretz Chairman Yossi Beilin."
"We have to leave the peace talk plain and move over to the security plain - a comprehensive operation in Gaza in order to stop Kassam and mortar shell attacks," continued the strategic affairs minister.
Lieberman repeated his demand that "the Palestinians must recognize Israel as a Jewish state as a condition for any negotiations."
Regarding the prisoner release, Lieberman said that since previous releases failed to bolster Abbas, Israel should not go ahead and free even more security inmates.
He also said that although the candidates for release had not directly participated in attacks on Israelis their intentions were not peaceful.
"They intended to kill, to murder," he told Israel Radio. "They did not succeed because of the security services, because of the army."
Prior to the cabinet meeting, Foreign Minster Tzipi Livni said that the Annapolis conference would be the place to set peace negotiations in motion.
"The conference is important in and of itself, but what is more important is the day and month after, when we will hold negotiations and attempt to reach two nation-states."
Regarding her controversial statement the previous morning that Israeli Arabs would have a place in a future Palestinian state, Livni said: "We are in the midst of a national conflict about two states for two nations. Israel is a democratic state and we need to separate between the solution that needs to be given to every citizen in Israel and the national Palestinian solution, which is a Palestinian state. This is what I said yesterday and I am now repeating it."
On Tuesday, the prime minister will meet Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt to coordinate positions ahead of the meeting, the Prime Minister's Office said.
The leaders will discuss the Israeli-Palestinian track and plans for the formal renewal of peace negotiations between the parties after the parley.
The meeting, which will take place at the Sharm el-Sheik resort in Sinai, comes before a key meeting of 12 members of the Arab League on Friday in which they will decide who will attend the conference.
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