Can Israel's Gestures Form a Better Platform for Peace Talks With the Palestinians?

Israel has agreed to begin releasing 250 Palestinian prisoners by the weekend.

ByABC News
July 16, 2007, 4:40 PM

JERUSALEM, July 16, 2007 — -- Mahdi Maraka is happy.

One of the Palestinian fugitives wanted by Israel, Maraka has been given amnesty by Israel following talks between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas Monday.

Maraka told ABC News that his group "will abide by all the decisions taken by the Palestinian president because we want to give him the full chance to negotiate."

The Israeli prime minister met with Abbas in Jerusalem Monday to discuss relations between Israel and the Palestinian authority after Hamas brutally seized control of the Gaza Strip.

The two leaders last met in the Egyptian resort of Sharm El Sheikh on June 25. In the Middle East, many saw that meeting as nothing more than a photo opportunity, a PR campaign aimed at showing progress in mutual talks -- progress that in fact was not happening.

Monday's meeting between the two leaders, however, is significantly different because of the gestures made by Israel to the Palestinians.

In unusual moves aimed at bolstering Abbas, the moderate Palestinian leader who is backed by both Israel and the United States, Israel will start releasing 250 Palestinian prisoners held at Israeli jails by the end of the weekend.

The issue of the Palestinian prisoners has always been an enormously pressuring problem for the Palestinian president and a prime concern for thousands of Palestinian families.

In addition to this gesture, Israel will give amnesty to 178 wanted armed men affiliated with the Palestinian president's Fatah party. According to the amnesty deal, Israel will stop chasing these armed militants if they lay down their arms and cease their attacks against Israel.

Miri Eisin, a spokesperson for the Israeli government, told reporters Monday that Olmert talked to Abbas about "the changing of the status of the fugitives." She added, "This is an important aspect of the developing security cooperation."

Israel will also allow several Palestinian exiled leaders to attend meetings in Ramallah where they will discuss the situation in the Palestinian territories after Hamas' takeover of Gaza.