Olmert acts to bolster Abbas before meeting

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert sought wide Arab support on Monday for a U.S.-led peace conference by agreeing to release 441 Palestinian prisoners and reaffirming a pledge not to build new Jewish settlements.But Olmert, speaking before a two-hour meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, did not say whether he would agree to U.S. and Palestinian demands to halt construction in existing settlements in the occupied West Bank.

A senior Palestinian negotiator, latching on to the uncertainty, described Olmert’s comments as “nonsense” unless they included halting new building in established settlements.

“Let’s be honest. We committed ourselves in the ‘road map’ not to build new settlements,” Olmert said, referring to a 2003 peace plan promoted by the United States, host of the November 26-27 conference in Annapolis, Maryland on Palestinian statehood.

“There will be no new settlements and no land confiscations” from the Palestinians, he told his cabinet.

Israel has not built a new settlement in the West Bank in nearly 10 years but has pressed on with construction in existing ones. In addition, settlers have set up several dozen hilltop outposts without government approval.

Olmert repeated at the cabinet session a long-standing promise to remove the outposts, but again set no date.

In a gesture to Abbas, he won ministers’ approval to release 441 Palestinian prisoners, a government official said. Abbas, whose Fatah faction lost control of the Gaza Strip to Hamas Islamists in June, had wanted 2,000 freed. 

After Olmert met Abbas, the Israeli leader’s spokeswoman said progress had been made on an elusive pre-conference joint document that would address in general terms core issues such as borders and the future of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees.

“There is enough agreement on enough things that there isn’t an atmosphere of crisis, although there are some issues that remain open,” said the spokeswoman, Miri Eisin.

She said Palestinian chief negotiator Ahmed Qurie would meet Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni later in the day. There was no immediate Palestinian comment.

U.S. and Israeli officials have said a joint document was not a precondition for Annapolis, a chance for President George W. Bush, saddled with the legacy of the unpopular war in Iraq, to revive Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking before leaving office.

SAUDI PARTICIPATION

In a surprise announcement, Olmert’s office said the prime minister planned to go to Egypt on Tuesday for talks with President Hosni Mubarak.

His trip appeared to be part of efforts to ensure broad Arab participation at Annapolis, launching pad for formal talks on statehood. Arab League foreign ministers meet in Cairo on Friday to decide whether to attend.

Saudi Arabia, which has not said whether it will take part in the U.S. conference, has demanded a “freeze of settlements” before the conference convenes.

“What Olmert announced today is nonsense,” said senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat. “Olmert has to understand he either declares a full settlement freeze in all occupied areas including East Jerusalem, or it’s nothing.” 

The road map calls for a freezing of “all settlement activity”, including “natural growth”, a reference to building in existing settlements to accommodate growing families.

“If Olmert does not halt ‘natural growth’ then nothing has changed,” said Nabil Abu Rdainah, an Abbas aide.

About 270,000 Jewish settlers live among 2.5 million West Bank Palestinians. The World Court has branded all settlements on land captured by Israel in the 1967 war as illegal.

Like Bush and 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.

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