Israel agrees to free Palestinians held prisoner

JERUSALEM — JERUSALEM - Israel will release about 150 Palestinian prisoners, including perhaps a couple of prominent ones, at the end of this month as a gesture to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, officials from both sides said after a meeting yesterday between Abbas and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel.

The meeting, part of an effort to create a peace framework between the two sides before President Bush leaves office, was the first since Olmert announced that he would be stepping down in the coming months because of corruption investigations.


Despite concerns that the shaky negotiating process would not recover from that announcement, Olmert's spokesman, Mark Regev, said that Israel remains committed to the talks, irrespective of who is prime minister, and that the two leaders would meet again in a couple of weeks.

Other Israeli and Palestinian officials said that the Olmert government was now a lame duck capable only of keeping the process alive rather than bringing it to any conclusion.


Regev declined to reveal the number of prisoners to be released or to discuss any specific names or dates.

However, Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, told reporters that 150 had been agreed upon, as had the date of Aug. 25.

The Olmert-Abbas summit came on the day Israel freed five Palestinian prisoners as part of its exchange with Hezbollah guerrillas to bring back the bodies of two soldiers captured in 2006.

With Hamas demanding freedom for several hundred prisoners in exchange for Sgt. Gilad Schalit, an Israeli soldier also captured in 2006, Abbas needs to show his people that he can win freedom for prisoners in Israeli jails by peaceful means, as opposed to the militants' tactics of attacks and abductions.

Regev said that the prisoners would be released "as a confidence-building measure, as a gesture of goodwill."

Erekat said that the Palestinians had asked for the release of Marwan Barghouti, who is widely viewed as a likely successor to Abbas as well as one of the masterminds of the second Palestinian uprising in 2000.

Others included Ahmed Saadat, the leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine; Abdel Aziz Dweik, the speaker of the Palestinian parliament, who is from the Islamist Hamas movement; and Said Atabeh of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, who has been in prison since 1977 and is the longest-serving Palestinian prisoner in Israel.

Erekat made a point of noting the political range of those whose release had been requested and said Abbas is the president of all Palestinians, not just his Fatah faction.


Fatah is in deep disarray, losing political ground to Hamas, which rules in Gaza, and both Abbas and Olmert clearly hope that the release of a range of Palestinians to Abbas will boost his troubled political standing.

Israeli officials did not contradict Erekat.

But they made clear that Barghouti would not be released; others on the list might be.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.