- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 26, 2007

SHARM EL SHEIK, Egypt — Israel’s prime minister promised yesterday to free 250 Palestinian prisoners and to improve life in the West Bank in an attempt to boost Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas after Hamas’ takeover in Gaza.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert made the pledges at a summit in this Egyptian Red Sea resort with Mr. Abbas and the leaders of Egypt and Jordan.

The Arab leaders hope the high-profile gathering can lead to a resumption of the long-blocked peace process, rally Palestinian support behind Mr. Abbas and isolate Hamas after the Islamic militant group’s stunning and bloody victory in Gaza.

Hamas’ new power has raised fears the Mediterranean coastal strip will become a breeding ground for extremism, and messages released by militants ahead of the summit underlined the turmoil swirling around Gaza.

Hamas-linked militants holding an Israeli soldier for the past year released an audiotape of him urging Israel to make a deal for his release. A British journalist kidnapped in Gaza appeared on a video wearing an explosives belt that his captors threatened to detonate if security forces try to free him. And al Qaeda’s deputy leader tried to woo Hamas into an alliance and called on Muslims to attack American and Israeli interests in support of the group.

Mr. Abbas told the Sharm el Sheik gathering, “It is time to relaunch the peace process” to tackle the toughest, central issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Mr. Olmert did not promise an immediate resumption of peace negotiations, but said the steps he was announcing were to prepare the ground for them. “I don’t intend to let this opportunity pass,” the Israeli leader said, adding that he told Mr. Abbas “that we will work with the new government and maintain frequent meetings with it.”

The prime minister announced the prisoner release and promised to “substantially” improve freedom of movement in the West Bank by easing roadblocks and other security measures and reopening trade ties with the territory.

He said the release of 250 Fatah prisoners “who do not have blood on their hands” was meant as “a gesture of good will toward the Palestinians.” Olmert spokeswoman Miri Eisin said the prisoners would be freed within 48 hours of Cabinet approval Sunday.

The release would be the largest since February 2005, when Israel freed 500 after a summit in Sharm el Sheik also aimed at bolstering Mr. Abbas.

Also yesterday, kidnapped BBC journalist Alan Johnston appeared on a video, with what he said were explosives strapped to his body, and warned that his captors intend to set them off if rescuers attempt to free him by force.

The tape was made by the Army of Islam, a shadowy group that took responsibility for snatching Mr. Johnston from a Gaza City street on March 12.

Separately, Hamas militants yesterday released a recorded message from Cpl. Gilad Shalit, the Israeli serviceman captured near the border with Gaza a year ago. It was the first sign of life from the young soldier since his seizure.

In the audio message, posted on the Web site of Hamas’ military wing, Cpl. Shalit expressed disappointment in the Israeli government’s “lack of interest” in his fate.

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