Israel to Release Palestinian Prisoners as Goodwill Gesture

06 August 2008

Israeli and Palestinian leaders met Wednesday in a bid to advance the peace process. Robert Berger reports from the VOA bureau in Jerusalem.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert hosted Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at his official residence in Jerusalem to assess progress in peace talks sponsored by the United States. As a goodwill gesture, Mr. Olmert promised to release an undisclosed number of Palestinian prisoners by the end of the month. 

"We are committed to doing everything we can to make this process work," said prime minister's spokesman Mark Regev.

The meeting was the first between the two leaders since Mr. Olmert's announcement a week ago that he would resign in September over a corruption scandal.

Mr. Abbas asked Mr. Olmert how that would affect negotiations on a Palestinian state. Regev says the prime minister responded that he would continue to work for peace as long as he remains in office.

"I can tell you the prime minister is cool, he's doing the work that needs to be done. I see him conducting the business of government in an ongoing way," added Regev.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the political upheaval in Israel must not stop the peace process.

"It's an internal Israeli matter as far as we're concerned. But at the end of the day, as Palestinians, we want to make peace with all Israelis, not with this party or that person," he said. 

Nevertheless, as a lame duck, Mr. Olmert does not have the political clout to deliver on major territorial concessions to the Palestinians. And he has already thrown cold water on the U.S. goal of a peace agreement by the end of the year. Last month, Mr. Olmert told a parliamentary committee that it is impossible to reach an agreement in such a short time because of deep differences over the status of Jerusalem.