Israel pressed to make bolder moves before meeting

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JERUSALEM, Nov 18 (Reuters) The United States is pressing Israel to go beyond a planned partial settlement freeze and to raise the number of Palestinian prisoners to be freed before a peace conference, Israeli and Western officials said today.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas are expected to meet tomorrow in Jerusalem for the last time before attending the conference on Palestinian statehood in Annapolis, Maryland, in just over a week, Israeli and Palestinian officials said.

In addition to at least a partial freeze in Jewish settlement building in the occupied West Bank, Olmert plans to ask his cabinet on Monday to approve the release of around 450 Palestinian prisoners, short of the 2,000 requested by Abbas, Israeli officials said.

US President George W Bush called for the conference to bolster Abbas and the long-stalled peace process after Hamas Islamists seized the Gaza Strip in June. The Bush administration may also be seeking its own legacy boost after the Iraq war.

Preparations for the conference have been marred by disputes between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators over a joint document meant to address in general terms ''core'' issues such as borders, and the future of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees.

Washington has stepped up pressure on both sides to resolve their differences over the document, but US and Israeli officials have stressed that the centrepiece of the conference will be an agreement to resume formal statehood negotiations.

''Annapolis cannot be a failure because it is already a success just for taking place,'' Olmert told visiting French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, according to Olmert's office.

''It is a launching of talks which have not taken place in seven years in the presence of dozens of countries and the entire world,'' Olmert added.

BUILDING BLOCS Olmert had sought to exempt the occupied West Bank's major settlement blocs, which Israel intends to keep under any final peace deal, from any construction freeze. But Washington rebuffed the idea, Israeli and Western officials said.

Kouchner is also pressing Israel to immediately halt settlement construction, officials said.

A 2003 peace ''road map'' backed by the United States demands a freeze on ''all settlement activity'', including so-called ''natural growth'' of existing settlements, meaning construction to accommodate expanding families. It also calls on the Palestinians to rein in militants.

Some 270,000 Jewish settlers live in the West Bank among 2.5 million Palestinians. The World Court has branded all the settlements on land captured by Israel in the 1967 war as illegal.

Freezing all settlement construction might help encourage key Arab states such as Saudi Arabia to attend the Annapolis conference.

But it is unclear what impact it would have, given the Defence Ministry has already frozen new building permits.

Palestinian officials said the Annapolis conference would begin on November 26. The main session will take place the following day, Israeli officials said.

Reviving long-stalled peace talks has been complicated by Palestinian divisions, with Hamas controlling the Gaza Strip and Abbas's Fatah faction dominating the West Bank.

Abbas and Olmert have said they hoped to reach an agreement on a Palestinian state before Bush leaves office in January 2009, though Israel has insisted that implementation not begin until the Palestinians dismantle militant groups.

REUTERS SZ BD1615

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