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November 19, 2007
Israel Approves Release of 441 Prisoners
In attempt to boost the standing of Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas prior to next week's Annapolis conference on Middle East peace, Prime Minister Olmert has gotten cabinet approval to release 441 Palestinian prisoners:
The Cabinet vote took place ahead of a meeting between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who tried to break a deadlock in preparations for the U.S.-hosted peace summit, which is expected to take place in Annapolis, Md., next week. The US government has been pressuring Israel to also halt construction in existing settlements prior to the conference but has been rebuffed by Olmert. Meanwhile, Arab governments still seem cool to the idea of the Annapolis summit partly because its outcome is uncertain. It is expected that Abbas and Olmert will agree to some kind of framework for a final settlement but the details still need to be hashed out.
Israel sees the conference primarily as a ceremonial launching pad for new peace efforts, while the Palestinians want a more detailed plan for how post-conference talks will proceed.
Olmert's spokeswoman, Miri Eisin, said progress was made during the 90-minute meeting. She did not elaborate, but said negotiators would meet Tuesday to continue their work.
Seeking to drum up support for the conference, Olmert is heading to Egypt on Tuesday for talks with President Hosni Mubarak, his office said. Arab League members are to decide on Friday whether they will join the gathering. High-level Arab attendance is seen as crucial to the success of nascent peace moves.
With the prestige of the US on the line to some extent, it is expected that both Olmert and Abbas will achieve something tangible in Annapolis. Any other outcome would be a blow to US diplomacy in the Middle East - something neither side wants or can afford.