Cabinet Agrees to Free Terrorists Ahead of Annapolis
The Cabinet approved on Monday Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's proposal to free 441 Palestinian Authority terrorists as another "good will gesture" to PA Chairman and Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen). All of the convicts could be walking the streets by Friday, after the list is reviewed by a ministerial committee.
Trade Minister Eli Yishai (Shas party) voted against the plan, as did Strategic Affairs Minister Avigdor Lieberman (Yisrael Beiteinu - Israel Our Home party). Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz, a former Defense Minister and member of Olmert's own Kadima party, also voted against it.
Prime Minister Olmert met with Abbas Monday afternoon in another attempt to bring the two sides closer on an agreement prior to the Middle East summit scheduled for early next week in Annapolis, Maryland.
Despite the fact that Israel has released hundreds of other terrorists this year, and granted amnesty to hundreds more, the PA was dissatisfied with the "gesture," having handed Jerusalem officials a list of 2,000 prisoners it wanted to be freed.
A vow repeated by the Prime Minister not to allow the construction of new Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria was also not enough to satisfy PA officials, despite Olmert's reference to Israel's commitment to the Road Map plan.
"Let's be honest," he told cabinet ministers. "We committed ourselves in the 'Road Map' not to build new settlements. There will be no new settlements and no land confiscations [from PA Arabs]," Olmert was quoted as saying by spokeswoman Miri Eisin. He also reiterated his promise to destroy hilltop outposts built without government approval, but gave no timetable.
Chief PA negotiator Saeb Erekat called Olmert's declarations "nonsense" and said the Prime Minister "has to understand he either declares a full settlement freeze in all occupied areas including East Jerusalem, or it's nothing."
The PA has also insisted that Israel halt development within established communities that have existed for decades in the region. "If Olmert does not halt 'natural growth' [ed. - a reference to Jewish births] then nothing has changed," said Abbas aide Nabil Abu Rdainah.
A senior Fatah official said the PA will demand the Jewish State sign a promise at the Annapolis conference to release all of the more than 10,000 Arab security prisoners and terrorists being held in Israeli jails.
Some Israeli officials are hoping to put off the conference, or at least prevent the Prime Minister, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni from attending.
In a letter sent to U.S. President George W. Bush this week, National Union/National Religious Party Knesset Member Aryeh Eldad demanded that the summit be postponed due to the investigations against Olmert.
"The Israeli Prime Minister is suspected of corruption and does not enjoy the Israeli public's support," wrote Eldad. "His hands are tied and therefore the conference is destined to fail."