The Israeli Cabinet on Monday approved the release of 441 Palestinian prisoners, the prime minister's office said, in a goodwill gesture to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas ahead of a U.S.-hosted Mideast conference.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said the gesture was meant to bolster the moderate Abbas, who is in a bitter rivalry with the Islamic militant group Hamas. None of the prisoners slated to be freed belong to Hamas.
The release was approved ahead of a meeting between Olmert and Abbas. The two men were set to discuss preparations for the U.S. summit, expected to take place next week in Annapolis, Md.
Eaerlier on Monday, Olmert told his Cabinet that Israel would not build any new settlements in the West Bank, but stopped short of American demands to freeze construction in existing communities.
Olmert also promised to remove unauthorized settlement outposts in the West Bank. But he gave no timeline for taking action, and has made similar pledges in the past.
A settlement freeze and dismantling of outposts are key aspects of the "road map," a U.S.-backed peace plan that stalled shortly after its inception in 2003.
"Let's be straight, we committed ourselves in the road map not to build new settlements and we will not build any," Olmert was quoted as saying by his spokeswoman, Miri Eisin.
Palestinian officials reacted coolly to Olmert's statement, which came shortly before a meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
The Israeli leader has been under American pressure to make goodwill gestures, including a settlement freeze, ahead of a high-profile Mideast summit next week.
Roadmap to an independent state?
At the summit, Israel and the Palestinians hope to relaunch formal peace talks that broke down in violence seven years ago.
The road map is a staged peace plan that calls for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.
Its first phase calls on Israel to freeze all settlement construction and remove dozens of unauthorized settlement outposts built since 2001 -- steps that were never taken. The plan also requires the Palestinians to crack down on militants.
Abbas says he has begun carrying out his obligations and wants Israel to do the same.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Olmert's gesture falls far short of Israel's commitments. He noted that a string of Israeli leaders have maintained that Israel should be allowed to build in existing settlements to account for "natural growth."
"He omitted from the Israeli obligation in the road map that the Israeli government must freeze all settlement activity, including natural growth," Erekat said. "Either it's a 100 percent settlement freeze or no settlement freeze. There is nothing in the middle."
Some 270,000 Israelis live in the West Bank, in addition to roughly 180,000 Jews living in east Jerusalem.
The Palestinians claim both areas, which Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war, for part of their future state.
Israel has built no new authorized settlements in nearly a decade.
Olmert has signaled his is ready to relinquish large areas of the West Bank and parts of east Jerusalem. But he also hopes to retain large settlement blocs in the West Bank and key areas in east Jerusalem, including Jewish, Christian and Muslim holy sites.