Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas finalized details surrounding an imminent release of 250 Palestinian prisoners during a meeting between the two leaders in Jerusalem Monday afternoon. The list of mostly Fatah prisoners that Israel will release later this week as a goodwill gesture to Abbas was drawn up on Sunday. Olmert's spokesman, Jacob Galanti, said the prisoner release would take place on Friday. He said 85 percent of the prisoners would come from Abbas's Fatah faction, with the remainder coming from smaller Palestinian parties. None will come from Hamas, he said. Government officials said the list was made up of security prisoners who do not have blood on their hands and who all have at least one more year to serve before their release. Olmert promised Abbas a prisoner release some three weeks ago in Sharm e-Sheikh, but it took longer than expected to draw up a list of "significant" names that would strengthen Abbas's position among the Palestinians.
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The release of the prisoners was just one of the gestures Olmert was scheduled to offer Abbas during the meeting. The other gestures include stopping the hunt for 178 wanted Fatah gunmen and letting Nayef Hawatmeh, the head of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), travel to Ramallah Wednesday for a meeting of the PLO's central committee.
A senior official in the Prime Minister's Office characterized these gestures as "gradual, measured steps that Israel has taken in the hope of changing the atmosphere" with the PA.
In return, the official said, the PA has begun to disarm militias in the West Bank, and has convinced the 178 wanted men to sign commitments renouncing terrorism and giving up their arms. The highest profile name on the list is Zakariya Zubeidi, head of the Aksa Martyrs Brigades in Jenin.
Monday's Olmert-Abbas meeting took place away from the cameras and reporters, and - like all their previous meetings - did not entail interviews or press conferences.
At that summit, Olmert promised the prisoner release, but drawing up names of prisoners "without blood on their hands" that would satisfy Abbas proved difficult. The current list is made up of 85 percent Fatah men and 15% from the DFLP and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). The inclusion of the PFLP and DFLP prisoners was done at Abbas's request.
The list will be brought to an interministerial committee headed by Olmert on Tuesday for final approval. If approved, which is considered very likely, the names will be published and the public will have 48 hours to appeal the decision in the courts.
Sources in the Prime Minister's Office defined Monday's Olmert-Abbas meeting as a continuation of the "developing relationship that started with the establishment of the new PA government after the Hamas takeover in Gaza, and continued at the summit in Sharm."
The sources said the prisoners on the list were those who took part in terrorist actions that failed, such as shootings that missed their targets or roadside bombings that failed to detonate. None of the prisoners are high-profile names that most of the Israeli public would recognize. All of the prisoners live in the West Bank, and the list includes only a handful of minors and women.
"We are starting to see ongoing cooperation between the two sides," one official in the Prime Minister's Office said. "They [the PA] convinced terrorists to lay down their arms and renounce terrorism. That is part of the ongoing dialogue."
Olmert and Abbas were also expected to discuss the volatile situation in Gaza, as well as the mandate of new Quartet Middle East envoy Tony Blair.
Blair is expected to take part in a meeting of the Quartet - the US, EU, UN and Russia - in Lisbon on Thursday. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who took part in the meeting, issued a statement prior to the meeting, saying it would "assess the recent events and discuss the way forward to advance the cause of peace in the Middle East. In particular, the Quartet principals will confer with the Quartet representative, Tony Blair, on how best to assist the Palestinian Authority in building its institutions and economy, which are vital for the creation of a viable Palestinian state."