- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 24, 2006

JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Ehud Olmert yesterday indicated he might release some Palestinian prisoners in the coming days, associates said, softening his long-standing opposition to such a gesture and saying it was “time to show flexibility and generosity.”

Mr. Olmert has repeatedly rejected a prisoner release until a captured Israeli soldier is released safely by the Palestinian militants holding him. But after a meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Mr. Olmert urged his Cabinet to reconsider its attitude toward releasing some of the estimated 8,000 Palestinian prisoners in custody.

“The time has come to show flexibility and generosity regarding prisoners,” he said, according to a participant in the meeting. “It could be that this opinion is different from what has been said in earlier government meetings, but this is my opinion.”

Minister of Pensioner Affairs Rafi Eitan, speaking to Israel Radio, suggested Israel might consider releasing Palestinian leader Marwan Barghouti as part of the deal, Reuters news agency reported.

A release would give the moderate Mr. Abbas an important boost in his rivalry with the Islamist militant group Hamas, which controls the Palestinian Cabinet and parliament. But it would also be politically risky for Mr. Olmert, who already is deeply unpopular after the summer war against Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon.

Mr. Olmert, who has tried to restart peace efforts with the Palestinians in recent months, met with Mr. Abbas on Saturday and made a series of gestures to the moderate Palestinian leader, offering to lift some West Bank checkpoints and unfreeze hundreds of millions of dollars in withheld tax funds.

However, he rejected Mr. Abbas’ primary request — the release of prisoners, reiterating his insistence that Cpl. Gilad Shalit, who was captured by Hamas-linked militants in June, first return home.

At yesterday’s Cabinet meeting, Mr. Olmert signaled a change in his thinking. The Israeli official who was in the meeting said Mr. Olmert hinted that some prisoners could be freed by the upcoming Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha. The official declined to be identified because he was discussing closed-door government deliberations.

The Cabinet also approved the release of $100 million in withheld taxes to Mr. Abbas’ office, Reuters reported.

Attending Christmas Eve celebrations in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, Mr. Abbas said his meeting with Mr. Olmert was “a good start, and we hope that all our demands will be met as soon as possible.”

By softening his position, Mr. Olmert appears to be trying to bolster Mr. Abbas’ argument to the Palestinian people that only talks with Israel will bring them an independent state. Hamas, which calls for the destruction of Israel, advocates using force to gain independence.

“There are among the Palestinians responsible and moderate sources who openly say they want to make peace with Israel,” Mr. Olmert told a meeting of his Kadima party late yesterday. “[Mr. Abbas] is an opponent. He is not an easy opponent, but with an opponent like this, there might be a chance for talks to reach an agreement.”

Cpl. Shalit’s father, Noam, said in a TV interview that he would support an early prisoner release if it can bring his son home. “I support this move, as long as it is reasonable and if it helps set my son free.”

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