Olmert: Israel to release more prisoners

PM meets Abbas in Jerusalem, vows to free unspecified number of convicts by end of Aug.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's pledge Wednesday to release prisoners to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas by the end of the month was aimed at showing the Palestinians that more could be gained through dialogue than by extremism and terrorism, officials in the Prime Minister's Office said Wednesday. Olmert's spokesman Mark Regev, speaking after the Olmert-Abbas meeting at the prime minister's Jerusalem residence, said Israel understood the sensitivity of the issue for Palestinian society, and the importance the Palestinians placed on the matter. "As a gesture to Abbas, we will be facilitating the release of prisoners at the end of the month, above and beyond what has been done in previous hostage negotiations," Regev said. Regev would not expand on what was meant by "above and beyond" previous negotiations, nor would he confirm reports that the Palestinians were asking for the release of Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine leader Ahmed Saadat - who was behind the assassination of former tourism minister Rehavam Ze'evi - and Hamas parliament speaker Aziz Dweik. When asked whether releasing prisoners to Abbas might not lead Hamas to raise the price for the return of kidnapped soldier St.-Sgt. Gilad Schalit in an effort to show they could get more than Fatah, Regev said that "the issues are not connected." Another official said Abbas had been complaining for months to the US and European officials that Israel was "shooting him in the foot" by releasing prisoners to Hizbullah and Hamas, but not to him. "This is the result of the pressure," the official said. Though Israel would not provide the number of prisoners expected to be released, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said after the meeting that the numbers being discussed were between 120 and 150. Olmert first pledged to release prisoners to Abbas when they met with French President Nicolas Sarkozy last month at a conference of EU and Mediterranean states held in Paris. Diplomatic officials said then that the promise had been made so Abbas would also get credit on the Palestinian street for winning the release of Palestinian prisoners, following Israel's promise to release prisoners to Hizbullah in the deal for Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser. Regev described Wednesday's two-hour Olmert-Abbas meeting - 90 minutes with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, chief Palestinian negotiator Ahmad Qurei and top aides, and 30 minutes alone - as having taken place in a "good" atmosphere that focused on "how to solve problems and move the process forward." According to Regev, both leaders reiterated their commitment to "making every effort" so the Annapolis process would succeed. He said the two leaders had reviewed the progress of the negotiations, including the trilateral meeting last week between Livni, Qurei and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Regev said Olmert and Abbas had agreed to meet again shortly. One diplomatic official said the Palestinians had made it clear that they intended to continue working with whatever Israeli government was in power, and that the negotiations would continue despite the political turmoil in Israel.