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Olmert to Release Prisoners in Show of Support


Arab and Israeli leaders met in Egypt today in a show of support for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert offered a single gesture to Abbas, the possible release of 250 Palestinian prisoners. The Islamist Hamas movement, which took over the Gaza Strip by force just over a week ago, was not invited to the summit.

NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.

PETER KENYON: The summit turned out to be largely a series of one-on-one meetings between Abbas, Olmert, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and Jordan's King Abdullah. Afterwards, all four spoke with the need to strengthen what they called the voices of reason. But there's a significant gap between the show of financial and political support in resuming Mideast peace efforts.

Abbas said despite what he called the coup in Gaza, now is the time for direct talks with Israel

President MAHMOUD ABBAS (Palestine): (Through translator) I call on you not to waste this historic opportunity to reach agreement on a establishing two states, living peacefully together according to the borders of 1967.

KENYON: But no timetable for negotiations was announced and analysts say one isn't likely any time soon. Olmert repeated the comment of past Israeli leaders that Israel has no wish to run the lives of Palestinians. He also spoke of not missing this opportunity for peace, but his main substantive pledge was to ask for the release of a limited number of Palestinian prisoners.

Prime Minister EHUD OLMERT (Israel): (Through Translator) It is my intention to submit to my government a request to release 250 prisoners, Fatah activists who do not have blood on their hands.

KENYON: Arab analysts said in light of the thousands of Palestinians now held in Israeli prisons, releasing 250 would be seen as a minimal gesture.

As if to underscore that Hamas cannot be ignored, Hamas-linked militants posted audio on a Web site from an Israeli soldier captured one year ago. The soldier said his health was deteriorating and he urged Israel to address his captors' demands.

For Egypt, there's a strong worry that Hamas' reach for power might spill over to Egypt's own Islamist movement, the Muslim Brotherhood. An aide to Mubarak said the president called the Hamas takeover in Gaza very dangerous, but he believed the dispute could still be resolved through a dialogue.

That's not what Israel wants to hear. Olmert came here to advance the agenda Israel shares with the Bush administration - to divide Hamas and the Gaza Strip from the West Bank, and to punish Gaza by cutting off all but the most essential humanitarian aid. A second major demand to the Palestinians for greater freedom of movement in the West Bank is meeting resistance from the Israeli military. Israel believes Abbas doesn't control the security forces and it worries that lifting the roadblocks could facilitate attacks.

In Gaza, the Hamas leadership was unimpressed by the summit. Prime Minister Ismael Hania called the promise of money to Fatah bribery and insisted that only resistance to occupation would enable Palestinians to realize their goal of a state.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Sharm el-Sheikh. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.