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SHARM EL-SHEIK, Egypt - Israel's prime minister promised Monday to free 250 Palestinian prisoners and promised to improve life in the West Bank in an attempt to boost Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas after Hamas' takeover in Gaza.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, right, meets with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert at the city of Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, Monday, June 25, 2007. [AP]
The Arab leaders hope the high-profile gathering can lead to a resumption of the long-blocked peace process, rally Palestinian support behind Abbas and isolate Hamas after the Islamic militant group's victory in Gaza.
Hamas' new power has raised fears the Mediterranean coastal strip will become a breeding ground for extremism, and a series of 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 strike a deal for his release. A British journalist kidnapped in Gaza appeared in a video wearing an explosives belt that his captors threatened to detonate if security forces try to free him. And al-Qaida'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.
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.
"Despite the bloody coup in Gaza, we are still determined to work relentlessly to achieve the independence and the freedom of our people," he said. "My hand is extended to work together with the Israelis on the basis of the Arab peace initiative, President Bush's vision of two states, international resolutions and the signed agreements."
Olmert did not promise an immediate resumption of peace negotiations, but said the steps he was announcing aimed to prepare the ground for them. "I don't intend to let this opportunity pass," the Israeli said, adding that he "told Abbas that we will work with the new government and maintain frequent meetings with it."
The prime minister announced the prisoner release and a series of steps aimed at easing the situation in the West Bank, where Abbas' Fatah faction and the new emergency government he set up hold sway. He 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.
"The residents of the West Bank will feel that choosing the path of no terror or violence, the way of peace and dialogue will bring a better, more comfortable, more peaceful life," Olmert said.
He said the release of 250 Fatah prisoners "who do not have blood on their hands" was meant as "a gesture of goodwill 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 Abbas, who had just won election as Palestinian president.