JERUSALEM (AFP) — Israel's cabinet voted on Sunday to release about 200 Palestinian prisoners as a goodwill gesture to president Mahmud Abbas aimed at bolstering slow-moving US-backed Middle East peace talks.
The August 25 release will coincide with a visit by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice aimed at encouraging the negotiations, which have shown little visible sign of progress since they were revived in November.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's spokesman Mark Regev called the move a "confidence-building measure" towards Abbas, adding: "We hope the release will help strengthen the peace process."
The list, which will be considered for final approval by a ministerial committee on Monday, will include at least two veteran prisoners implicated in deadly attacks on Israelis in the 1970s, a senior government official told AFP.
They will be a rare exception to Israel's general policy of not freeing those with "blood on their hands," but the official said the security establishment "believes the risk of the release is very low."
Israel had first announced the move on August 6 following a face-to-face meeting between Olmert and Abbas, the latest in a series of discussions since they relaunched peace talks at a US-hosted conference in November.
Once the ministerial committee approves the decision, Israelis will be able to appeal against the freeing of individual prisoners before the actual release takes place on August 25.
Rice -- on her 18th to the region in the last two years -- is also due to meet Abbas on August 25 before holding talks with the heads of the Israeli and Palestinian negotiating teams, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat told AFP.
A spokesman for Abbas called the prisoner release a "step in the right direction," but said the Palestinians had hoped to see more freed.
"President Mahmud Abbas had requested the release of very large numbers of prisoners, eventually leading to the release of all Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails," Nabil Abu Rudeina told AFP.
There are currently more than 11,000 Palestinians behind bars in Israel, including at least 85 women and children and 11 seriously ill people, according to the Palestinian Authority.
A number of them have been without charge or trial under what Israel calls administrative detention. Israel human rights group B'Tselem said that during 2007 Israel held a monthly average of 830 Palestinians in administrative detention.
The latest release is seen as a way of boosting the Western-backed Abbas against the rival Palestinian Islamist Hamas movement, which rules the Gaza Strip, and also a message to the Lebanese Hezbollah Shiite militia.
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni hailed the decision, saying that "whoever releases prisoners only to Hamas is strengthening Hamas."
The release would signal that "whoever engages in dialogue with Israel can be boosted through dialogue and not through the use of force," she added.
Livni is a front-runner to replace Olmert as the head of the centrist Kadima party and possibly prime minister in a party leadership vote on September 17, after which Olmert will step down to battle corruption allegations.
Right-wing Likud party leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who is favoured to win the premiership in snap elections should Kadima fail to form a new coalition, slammed the prisoner release.
"The Kadima-Labour government continues to liberate hundreds of terrorists without getting anything in exchange," he told public radio.
In July Hezbollah celebrated what it called a major victory when it traded the bodies of two Israeli soldiers for five Lebanese prisoners and the remains of some 200 Lebanese and Palestinian fighters.
Hamas has been trying to secure a similar deal to swap Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, seized in a deadly cross-border raid from the Gaza Strip in June 2006, for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners.
The senior government official said none of those set to be freed was included in the list of prisoners Hamas has demanded to be released and that the move would not undermine efforts to recover Shalit.
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