JERUSALEM - Israeli officials indicated yesterday that thousands of Palestinian prisoners would be eligible for release and could be freed in stages to help push forward a peace plan and stabilize a Palestinian government that is trying to protect a fragile cease-fire with militant groups.
The Israeli officials also agreed to let Palestinians have a say in which prisoners are eventually set free - allowing the two sides to coordinate on what has become one of the most contentious issues during the first stage of direct peace talks.
The move by Israel falls short of Palestinian demands, but it does mark a significant departure from earlier statements in which Israel had limited the number of prisoners to be freed to several hundred and had demanded autonomy over who was released.
Yesterday, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his Palestinian counterpart, Mahmoud Abbas, met along with aides for two hours to discuss the prisoner dispute and other points related to the "road map" to peace as both leaders prepare for meetings with President Bush in Washington.
Neither Sharon nor Abbas made any public statements after their meeting at Sharon's residence in Jerusalem. It was the fourth time the two had met since appearing at a summit June 4 in Aqaba, Jordan, in which they agreed to the broad terms of the peace plan.
Palestinian officials described yesterday's meeting as tense, disappointing and unproductive, with little substantive results and a lot of yelling. Sharon's office issued a statement that said the meeting "was conducted in a pleasant and cordial atmosphere."
Palestinian officials said they objected to being handed a list of 450 prisoners whom Israel is prepared to free in the first stage, and instead want to go over the names of all 6,000 detainees and come up with a joint decision on who is released.
Abbas took a tough stand in part to fend off internal criticism that he has repeatedly capitulated to Israel's demands and that he agreed to give up violence while getting little in return. The prisoner issue, though not a part of the "road map," has emerged as a top priority for Palestinians. Militant groups have made their cease-fire contingent on a blanket prisoner release, and the United States has urged Israel to expand the number of eligible detainees.
"Nothing is moving forward," Elias Zananiri, the new media adviser for the Palestinian security services, said after the meeting. "Now is the time for crucial intervention from the U.S. to prevent both sides from sliding back into an impasse that might trigger the conflict again."
Abbas is scheduled to travel to Egypt and Jordan before flying to Washington for his meeting with Bush, which is scheduled Friday. He is expected to press for more money and urge American officials to pressure Israel into withdrawing troops from the rest of the West Bank.
Sharon is scheduled to meet with Bush on July 29, and his aides said he will insist that Washington force the Palestinian government to confront and dismantle armed militant groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
Yesterday, Sharon's aides said the criteria established at the meeting allows for about 3,000 detainees to be released in small groups depending on progress made on the "road map."
Sharon has remained steadfast that prisoners directly linked to the deaths of Israelis not be included, but he has softened his prohibition on releasing Hamas and Islamic Jihad operatives.
Still, the change in policy does not appease the Palestinians. Zananiri said that Abbas wants prisoners who have been held for 20 or more years to be the first released, followed by those older than 60 and younger than 16. Some in those categories are directly linked to the deaths of Israelis.
But the biggest issue is how much say the Palestinian Authority would have in who gets released. Sharon, according to a statement from his office, agreed to allow the Palestinian minister for prisoner affairs, Hisham Abdal Raziq, to meet with Israel's domestic security chief, Avi Dichter, "to discuss the way and conditions by which the prisoners will be released."
Zananiri also said Sharon and Abbas discussed lifting the continued siege on Arafat's headquarters, which has confined the leader to Ramallah for more than a year, and further military withdrawals from West Bank cities. The Israeli army has pulled back troops in the Gaza Strip and has left the West Bank city of Bethlehem.
Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz has in recent days agreed that Palestinian police in Gaza have seized weapons, arrested militants firing mortars and opening fire. He also said that warnings for suicide bombings and other attacks has plummeted.
But he warned that militant groups are taking advantage of the lull - they committed to a three-month cease-fire - to rebuild their organizations hit hard by the Israeli army in the past year. He said that groups are stockpiling rockets and using roads reopened to Palestinian traffic to move arms.
The statement released by the Israeli prime minister's office says Sharon warned that Abbas "must take immediate and definite action to dismantle the terror organizations and added that once that has been carried out, Israel's ability to answer the needs of the Palestinians will be significantly increased."
Over the next week, Mofaz is to meet with Palestinian security chief Mohammed Dahlan to discuss the withdrawal from other cities and the removal of additional military checkpoints. Abbas and Sharon said they will meet again after both return from Washington.