Olmert to free prisoners, pre-talks boost for Abbas

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JERUSALEM, Nov 19 (Reuters) Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert sought wide Arab support today for a U.S.-led peace conference by agreeing to release 441 Palestinian prisoners and reaffirming a pledge not to build new Jewish settlements.

But Olmert, speaking before a two-hour meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, did not say whether he would agree to US and Palestinian demands to halt construction in existing settlements in the occupied West Bank.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, latching on to the uncertainty, described Olmert's comments as ''nonsense'' unless they included halting new building in established settlements.

A week before the conference in Annapolis, Maryland, both sides said they would continue efforts to draft before the meeting a document addressing in general terms core issues such as borders and the future of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees.

''Both sides seem ripe for reaching an agreement (on the document) before Annapolis,'' Olmert's spokeswoman, Miri Eisin said.

''There is enough agreement on enough things that there isn't an atmosphere of crisis, although there are some issues that remain open,'' Eisin said after Olmert met Abbas.

Erekat said the leaders exchanged new proposals and agreed negotiating teams would immediately resume work on the document.

''Was the meeting difficult? Yes. Are there differences remaining? Yes,'' Erekat told reporters.

US and Israeli officials have said a joint document was not a precondition for Annapolis, a chance for President George W Bush, saddled with the legacy of the unpopular war in Iraq, to revive Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking before leaving office.

Olmert told his cabinet before meeting Abbas ''there will be no new settlements and no land confiscations'' from Palestinians, as called for under a 2003 US-backed ''road map'' plan that charts reciprocal steps towards a peace agreement.

He said Israel would fulfil all its obligations under the road map -- but he gave no timeframe.

The violence-stalled plan, which also calls on Palestinians to rein in militants, will serve as the basis for statehood talks to be launched after the Nov. 26-27 Annapolis conference.

Israel has not built a new settlement in the West Bank in nearly 10 years but has pressed on with construction in existing ones. In addition, settlers have set up several dozen hilltop outposts without government approval.

Olmert repeated at the cabinet session a long-standing promise to remove the outposts, but again set no date.

PRISONER RELEASE In a gesture to Abbas, Olmert won ministers' approval to release 441 Palestinian prisoners, a government official said.

Abbas, whose Fatah faction lost control of the Gaza Strip to Hamas Islamists in June, had wanted 2,000 freed.

Olmert's office said the prime minister planned to go to Egypt on Tuesday for talks with President Hosni Mubarak.

Israel, the Palestinians and the United States are seeking broad Arab participation at Annapolis. Arab League foreign ministers meet in Cairo on Friday to decide whether to attend.

Saudi Arabia, which has not said whether it will take part in the US conference, has demanded a ''freeze of settlements'' before the conference convenes.

The road map calls for a freezing of ''all settlement activity'', including ''natural growth'', a reference to building in existing settlements to accommodate growing families.

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

Like Bush and Abbas, Olmert has been weakened politically.

He faces police investigations over alleged corruption, which he has denied, and the results before the end of the year of an official inquiry into his handling of the 2006 Lebanon war.

REUTERS RSA RN2347

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