SHARM EL-SHEIK, Egypt – Israel will release 250 Palestinian prisoners as a goodwill gesture, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced Monday as he and Arab leaders met here to shore up Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and search for fresh peacemaking opportunities.
The summit, hosted by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and including King Abdullah II of Jordan, produced no breakthroughs. But it conveyed sharply the how Hamas’ recent military victory over Gaza Strip security forces loyal to Abbas has jolted the region.
During the four-way summit – really a series of one-on-one meetings that included Abbas – Olmert announced that Israel would ease travel for Palestinians in the West Bank as well as release prisoners who belonged to Abbas’ Fatah party and were not involved in violence against Israelis.
No details were released on the changes to travel restrictions. Nor was it immediately clear who might be released by the Israelis. Palestinians have complained in the past that such gestures have included many prisoners who were nearing the end of their sentences anyway.
As expected, Olmert also said Israel would resume transfers of tax revenues that it collects for the Palestinian Authority but had withheld since the militant Hamas movement won parliamentary elections last year.
The Hamas takeover of Gaza in effect created a two-headed Palestinian government, with the coastal strip run by Hamas and the West Bank controlled by Fatah.
Olmert is under pressure to bolster Abbas, whose government is relatively moderate but weak, though the Israeli leader has resisted entering into substantive talks aimed at settling the Middle East conflict.
The U.S. and its allies in the region hope that isolating Hamas and strengthening Abbas in the West Bank can bring the radical Islamist movement to heel.
The session at this Red Sea resort was devoid of broad expectations. The leaders did not meet as a group, except to gather around an oversize table to read individual statements after the bilateral sessions.
Mubarak said the sessions had been “forthright and serious,” but he gave no indication the parties were closer to restarting substantive negotiations that have been frozen since the collapse of the Camp David talks in 2000.
In a statement, Mubarak said the “hopes for peace have retreated” since 2005, when he hosted a similar gathering with Abbas and Ariel Sharon, who was then Israel’s prime minister. “The peace process has also witnessed stagnation.”
The quickness which the latest summit was staged, just 11 days after Hamas’ victory in brutal street fighting, reflected a sense of both urgency and opportunity among the four leaders who attended.