Israel to halt settlement expansion, free prisoners

Updated: 2007-11-19 21:08

JERUSALEM - Israel said on Monday it would freeze construction of new settlements in the occupied West Bank and planned to free hundreds of Palestinian prisoners ahead of a key US peace meeting.

Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert (C) arrives to a weekly cabinet meeting in his office in Jerusalem November 19, 2007. Olmert sought wide Arab support on Monday for a US-led peace conference by agreeing to release some 450 Palestinian prisoners and reaffirming a pledge not to build new Jewish settlements. [Agencies] 

The moves were unveiled as Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas were to meet in a last-ditch bid to resolve differences on a joint document being drawn up for the peace conference.

Ahead of the encounter, the Israeli cabinet approved the release of up to 500 Palestinian prisoners -- out of the some 11,000 held by Israel -- as a goodwill gesture to Abbas, a senior official told AFP.

Olmert also vowed Israel would abide by commitments on settlement activity that it undertook -- but has not honoured -- under the so-called Middle East roadmap peace plan, largely dormant since its 2003 launch.

"We have committed ourselves under the roadmap not to build new settlements in the West Bank and we will not build any," a senior official quoted Olmert as telling ministers.

"We have committed not to expropriate land and we will not expropriate any. We have committed ourselves to dismantling illegal outposts and we will remove them."

But Olmert's statements appeared to fall short of a complete freeze to settlements -- including the expansion of existing ones -- which the Palestinians have demanded ahead of the peace meeting expected to take place next week in the US town of Annapolis.

"Israel should also engage to cease the natural growth of the settlements," Abbas spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeina said.

Speaking to reporters in Ramallah, Abbas said that "we want to reach satisfactory progress so that we can go to Annapolis with a solid base."

He said he had not yet received an official invitation for the conference, which Washington had announced in July but for which no official date and participant list has yet been announced.

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