JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel agreed on Sunday to free another 90 Palestinian prisoners to try to bolster President Mahmoud Abbas ahead of a U.S.-sponsored conference on Palestinian statehood, officials said.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s cabinet approved the release in principle after about a two-week delay. A ministerial committee will meet later on Sunday to approve the list.
Israel had been expected to release more than 100 Palestinian prisoners and it was not immediately clear why the number was cut back.
Olmert faces resistance from within his coalition government to taking more sweeping steps to bolster Abbas in his power struggle with Hamas, which seized the Gaza Strip in June.
A month after Gaza’s takeover, Israel freed more than 250 Palestinian prisoners, mostly Fatah members.
“We are trying to renew the negotiating process with the Palestinians and, in my opinion, this is one of the more important things for them,” cabinet minister Gideon Ezra told Israel Radio before the vote.
Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch argued against the move. “For everything we give, we don’t get anything in return,” he said.
The 90 prisoners now slated for release are members of Abbas’s secular Fatah faction, which still dominates the occupied West Bank.
Olmert has said only prisoners who do not have “blood on their hands” — a reference to deadly attacks on Israelis — and who agree to renounce violence would be freed.
The release of prisoners is highly emotive for Palestinians, who see their nearly 11,000 brethren held in Israeli jails as fighters for freedom from Israeli occupation.
The vote followed a visit by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who assured Abbas that Washington wanted the planned Middle East conference to put them firmly on the road towards statehood.
The conference is expected to be held in mid-to-late November.
Olmert had been expected to free the prisoners ahead of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, which started earlier this month, but their release was delayed after a series of Palestinian rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip.
Ashraf Ajrami, the Palestinian minister for prisoner affairs, said the gesture was virtually meaningless given the thousands of Palestinians who remain in Israeli jails.
“Israel is speaking about goodwill but if it wants to show goodwill, it needs to release 1,000 prisoners or more, not 100,” Ajrami said.