Olmert may free 100 Fatah prisoners

J'lem hopes move to release Gaza residents will help bolster Fatah in the Hamas-controlled Strip.

July Prisoners 298 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
July Prisoners 298
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is considering whether to release 100 more Fatah prisoners as a goodwill gesture to Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas in honor of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, which begins in mid September, Army Radio reported on Tuesday. The prisoners up for release are from Gaza and Jerusalem officials expressed hope that the move would help bolster Fatah in the Hamas-ruled Strip. Meanwhile, Olmert deflated expectations regarding what to expect at the US-sponsored international meeting later this year, saying Monday that he was not sure any draft agreement would be ready before the meeting, widely expected to be held in mid-November. Olmert, at a press conference after meeting with visiting Austrian Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer, characterized his talks with Abbas as "very interesting and very meaningful." At the same time, he said the sides were not at the point where they were putting anything down in writing. "If we will be able to draft something before November we certainly will make a joint statement in Washington. But I'm not certain we will be able to do so," Olmert said, adding that news reports of what has been discussed were wildly exaggerated. Abbas wants a detailed framework agreement that includes a time-table, while Olmert wants to see a more general "declaration of principles" that would "contribute to a speedy conclusion of negotiations" between Israel and the Palestinians based on the principle of a two-state solution. Olmert did not hide his annoyance at reports Monday saying that his efforts to reach an understanding with Abbas were drawing fire from his own party, saying that he has not heard any rumblings within Kadima over his diplomatic contacts with Abbas. The prime minister said he was certain that if an understanding were reached with the Palestinians that "reflect in a balanced way" Israeli interests, it would get "massive support from my party and the Israeli public." Olmert tried to downplay soaring expectations swirling around the meeting, saying that it was "a one time meeting, not a conference." The meeting is expected to be a topic of discussion when Olmert meets Quartet envoy Tony Blair on Tuesday, and when he meets US Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs David Welch on Wednesday. In addition to discussing the situation with the Palestinians, Olmert and Gusenbauer also discussed the issue of Iran, with Gusenbauer saying Iran must "come forward with much more elegance" and give proof of not just slowing down the nuclear program, but of halting it completely. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, during her meeting with the Austrian Chancellor, expressed Israel's concern about a memorandum of understanding signed earlier in the year between Iran and Austria's OMV, a large oil and gas company, to develop a large oil and gas field in Iran. Gusenbauer, during his press conference with Olmert, said that unlike other companies who were already on the ground in Iran, OMV has only signed the memorandum. He said that the "mainly private Austrian company" would fully honor UN Security Council sanctions on Iran, and that if those sanctions were stepped up, OMV would honor any of the changes. Olmert, however, said that the question was not merely a legal one, but rather one that had to do with the ramifications of a major business deal between a major Austrian company and Iran. He said that the less business with Iran the better, and that this would "signal to Iran that continuation of nuclear development would cost it dearly." "I hope the Austrian company reconsiders in view of the possible consequences," Olmert said. Gusenbauer, who in addition to meeting Olmert and Livni also met with President Shimon Peres and Defense Minister Ehud Barak on Monday, also raised in his discussions the possibility of peeling Syria away from the Iranian orbit. "I think that one result of the war in Iraq is that Iran could expand its geo-strategic influence in the area, and we have to think about limiting their space of maneuver," he said at his press conference with Olmert. Gusenbauer said there were different ways of doing this, including "bringing Syria in from the cold" and showing them "that there is an alternative to ... alignment with Iran."