Israel and the Palestinians will set up a steering committee to discuss the release of Palestinian security prisoners, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced at a press conference with visiting British Prime Minister Tony Blair on Monday. Government sources said the panel would be composed of representatives from Olmert's office and from the office of Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas. The sources said the committee would go over the names of prisoners to be released. Olmert said it would meet in the "next few days."
Analysis: A beleguered, bleary-eyed Blair abroad
Releasing prisoners is a gesture that has been mentioned numerous times over the past few months as one way Israel could bolster Abbas's position among his own people. The prisoner issue, according to the sources, was discussed by Blair and Olmert during their meeting.
Olmert has said on numerous occasions that he was on the verge of releasing prisoners before Cpl. Gilad Shalit was kidnapped in June.
Olmert ruled out for now the release of Fatah-Tanzim leader Marwan Barghouti, currently serving five life sentences for five murder.
"The release of this type of prisoner is a long, complicated process, and to the best of my understanding it is not now on the agenda," Olmert told a press conference at his Jerusalem residence, standing behind a large hanukkia that he lit with Blair.
The government sources said Olmert was not opposed to talking with Abbas about a prisoner release before Shalit is freed because Abbas was not the one holding Shalit, and because the PA chairman would like to see him released.
Asked whether it was conceivable that Israel would release Palestinian prisoners before Shalit was released, the sources replied, "Not at the moment, but it is possible that things might change."
Olmert reiterated that both he and Abbas wanted to meet, but that conditions were not yet ripe. According to Israeli officials, the main obstacle to such a meeting has been Abbas's desire for it to be accompanied by a prisoner release, and Olmert would not do this until Shalit was released.
Olmert said that he is in "direct contact" with Abbas.
Blair met with Olmert following a meeting he had in Ramallah with Abbas. The British prime minister, who last visited in September, also met Tuesday with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Amir Peretz. He is currently on a regional tour that has seen him visit Turkey, Iraq and Egypt in an effort to advance a diplomatic process.
Blair, during the press conference with Olmert, discussed the recent Syrian negotiation overtures and the visit to Damascus earlier this month by his senior foreign policy adviser, Nigel Sheinwald, and echoed the Israeli position that what was needed from Syria was a change of behavior.
Syria, Blair said, "should be judged not by words but by actions."
"If Syria makes a choice to be constructive for peace, to support democratic governments, and not undermine them, then we will be constructive with them," he said.
He said that as the Syrians supported terrorism and undermined the elected government in Lebanon, Britain was not so much refusing to deal with them as much as Damascus was setting themselves outside of the playing field by refusing to uphold the principles that the international community wanted to see respected.
"It is not that we don't want to deal with people, but if people dealing with us are contravening the very principles we are trying to achieve, it makes life very hard for us," Blair said.
The same, he said, held true for Hamas. "No one disputes that they won the elections," Blair said, "but if they want our help, and if anyone on the Palestinian side wants our help, they must support democracy, peace and the two-state solution."
Olmert reiterated his position that Israel wanted peace "with all Arab countries, and that includes Syria," but that Damascus's policies did not indicate that it was truly interested in peace.
These polices, he said, included support for Hizbullah and Hamas, undermining the Saniora government in Lebanon, and a close alliance with Iran.