Olmert Agrees to Release of Prisoners Ahead of Summit

JERUSALEM -- Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert sought wide Arab support on Monday 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 U.S. and Palestinian demands to halt construction in existing settlements in the occupied West Bank.

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

"Let's be honest. We committed ourselves in the 'road map' not to build new settlements," Olmert said, referring to a 2003 peace plan promoted by the United States, host of the Nov. 26-27 conference in Maryland on Palestinian statehood.

"There will be no new settlements and no land confiscations" from the Palestinians, he told his cabinet.

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 a gesture to Abbas, he 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.

After Olmert met Abbas, the Israeli leader's spokeswoman said progress had been made on an elusive pre-conference joint document that would address in general terms core issues such as borders and the future of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees.