( Reuters ) - Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert asked his cabinet on Monday to release up to 450 Palestinian prisoners ahead of talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on a U.S.-sponsored conference on statehood.
The meeting between the two leaders in Jerusalem later in the day will be their last before the Annapolis, Maryland conference, expected to be held on Nov. 26-27.
"I will leave at the beginning of the week for the Annapolis meeting," Olmert said at the start of the weekly cabinet session, voicing hope Israel and the Palestinians could still reach agreement "on the procedural side" of the conference.
Olmert's office said he planned to go to Egypt on Tuesday for talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
The Israeli leader's trip appeared to be part of a diplomatic effort to ensure broad Arab participation in the Annapolis conference. Arab League foreign ministers meet in Cairo on Friday to decide whether to attend the meeting. Disputes between Israel and the Palestinians have cast doubt on chances for an agreement before the parley on a joint document meant to address in general terms issues such as borders, and the future of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees.
U.S. and Israeli officials said the paper was not a precondition for the gathering, called by President George W. Bush to bolster Abbas and launch long-stalled peace talks after Hamas Islamists took over the Gaza Strip in June.
Israel, the Palestinians and the United States said the centrepiece of the conference would be an agreement to begin formal negotiations on a Palestinian state, with the goal of reaching a deal before Bush leaves office in January 2009.
Olmert told his cabinet the post-Annapolis negotiations would be "very intensive and serious and deal with all of the core issues that are part of the process that should lead to a two-state solution".
Olmert asked ministers to approve the release of up to 450 Palestinian prisoners, officials said as the session got under way. The number falls short of the 2,000 requested by Abbas.
Like Abbas, Olmert has been weakened politically. He faces police investigations over alleged corruption, which he has denied, and the results before the end of the year of an official inquiry into his handling of the 2006 Lebanon war.
Abbas dispatched top aides to Washington on Sunday to try to narrow differences on the joint document. Palestinian officials suggested reaching an agreement on the paper was crucial to ensuring participation of key Arab states such as Saudi Arabia.
The Bush administration has been pushing Israel to increase the number of Palestinian prisoners to be released, as well as to go beyond a partial West Bank settlement freeze.
Israeli officials said they would not be able to release many more prisoners without changing existing criteria, which exclude Hamas members and those who have "blood on their hands", a reference to deadly attacks against Israelis.
Olmert had sought to exempt the occupied West Bank's major settlement blocs, which Israel intends to keep under any final peace deal, from any construction freeze. But Washington rebuffed the idea, Israeli and Western officials said.
A 2003 peace "road map" calls on Israel to freeze all settlement activity and for the Palestinians to rein in militants.