Israel will release more Palestinian prisoners at the end of the month, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas Wednesday, as the two men met in Jerusalem to review progress in the ongoing peace talks, reported dpa.
Olmert spokesman Mark Regev, who described the Abbas-Olmert parley as "positive and purposeful, said the release was a "goodwill gesture and a confidence-building measure".
He did not say how many prisoners would be freed, or whether the list would include Marwan Barghouti, the jailed West Bank leader of Abbas' Fatah movement, or Ahmed Sadat, the head of the Popular Friont for the Liberation of Palestine.
Abbas has reportedly demanded their release, as a way of building his standing in the eyes of his electorate, and showing that he can get prisoners freed through negotiations, rather than through kidnapping Israelis to use as bargaining chips, the tactic favoured by such militants groups as Hamas and the Iranian-backed Lebanese Hezbollah.
Olmert and Abbas also expressed a willingness to continue with the peace process, Regev said, and the two leaders said they would would do "what needs to be done in order to make progress."
The meeting was also attended by Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and former Palestinian prime minister Ahmed Qureia, who respectively head the Israel and Palestinian teams negotiating a peace deal.
Olmert and Abbas pledged at the Annapolis summit in November last year to try and reach a peace deal by the end of 2008. Peace talks resumed, after a seven-year hiatus, at the turn of the year, but the negotiations are being held amidst a virtual media blackout and with conflicting reports any the progress being made.
However, the 2008 deadline has been complicated by Olmert's announcement last week that he will resign the premiership after his Kadima party elects a new leader in September.
He said that as long as he remained prime minister he would "not desist from the effort to bring the negotiations between us and our neighbours to a successful conclusion that offers hope," and added that "we are closer than ever to firm understandings that can serve as the basis for agreements."
But analysts doubt whether Olmert, effectively a lame-duck prime minister from the moment of his announcement last Wednesday night, can win political backing in Israel for any agreement he may achieve.
Livni is the front-runner to succeed Olmert as leader of Kadima and, if she can form a government, as prime minister.
The other leading candidate is Transport Minister Shaul Mofaz, a hawk who has expressed scepticism about the chances of reaching a peace deal with the Palestinian administration currently split between Abbas' Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and the Islamic Hamas movement in the Gaza Strip.
Hamas, which rejects Israel's right to exist and does not accept the 1993-94 Oslo interim peace accords, on Wednesday slammed the regular Olmert-Abbas' parleys as "a sort of comedy."
"Abbas goes to hand out information in the frame of security liaison between the two sides or to receive new orders from Olmert to apply them on the ground," spokesman Fawzi Barhooom said in Gaza.
Hamas has previously slammed Abbas for his cooperation with Israel, accusing him of being an agent for the Jewish state and for the United States.
Hamas and Fatah have been at loggerheads ever since the former defeated the latter in the January 2006 Palestinian elections. Tensions were exacerbated after Hamas gunmen routed forces loyal to Abbas in the Gaza Strip in June 2007 and seized security control of the salient.
Relations between the sides deteriorated even further after Hamas blamed Fatah for a car bomb in Gaza last month which killed five Hams members and a small girl.
Hamas arrested Fatah activists in the Strip, and the PA police began rounding up Hamas members in the West Bank.