- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 19, 2004

JERUSALEM — Israel yesterday approved the release of 170 Palestinian prisoners in a goodwill gesture to Egypt that also was seen as encouraging future negotiations with interim Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon also neared agreement with the Labor Party to expand his coalition government and ensure approval of a pullout from the Gaza Strip next year.

The decision to free the Palestinian prisoners followed Egypt’s Dec. 5 release of Azzam Azzam, an Israeli Arab who served eight years in prison on an espionage charge, in exchange for six Egyptians suspected of planning attacks on Israeli soldiers.

Mr. Sharon called the decision a “goodwill gesture” and spoke of “deep friendship” with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

A senior Israeli official said the move also was aimed at Mr. Abbas, who is the leading candidate in a Jan. 9 election to replace deceased Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

The official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Israel would consider further releases if the Palestinians take action against militants.

Israel tacitly supports Mr. Abbas in the election, viewing him as a moderate pragmatist. Mr. Abbas has made releasing prisoners a priority, and Israel’s move could boost his standing.

Israel holds an estimated 7,000 Palestinian prisoners, many accused of security-related crimes. Officials said the prisoners to be freed next week had not been actively involved in attacks on Israelis.

The Israeli daily Ha’aretz said 120 of the prisoners are members of Mr. Abbas’ Fatah party. The others were jailed on minor offenses.

Palestinians, who have long demanded the release of all prisoners, gave the announcement yesterday a cool reception.

“We consider this step a cosmetic one. We have not been consulted about this release,” said Radi Jaraie, the deputy Palestinian minister of prisoner affairs.

Saeb Erekat, a Palestinian Cabinet minister, and top Sharon aide Dov Weisglass met yesterday to start high-level coordination of election plans. Mr. Erekat said more meetings were planned.

Mr. Sharon also was nearing an agreement with his rivals from the opposition Labor Party on a joint government that would ensure a Cabinet majority for his plan to pull out of Gaza and part of the West Bank next year.

Mr. Sharon lost his majority because of internal opposition to the pullout plan. Without Labor, his minority government is vulnerable to being toppled in a parliamentary no-confidence vote, which would force an election.

Labor and Likud traditionally are ideological opponents, but Mr. Sharon’s Gaza pullout plan brought him closer to Labor’s policy.

A Labor official said yesterday that a draft agreement was ready and that both sides were examining it. Israeli press reported last-minute difficulties but expected the new government to be presented soon.

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