The Israeli Cabinet voted overwhelmingly on Sunday to release 90 Palestinian prisoners in an effort to shore up the moderate Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, in his power struggle with Islamic Hamas militants. But the size of the release disappointed the Palestinians at a time when the two sides are feverishly trying to move peace talks into high gear.
A government spokeswoman said the prisoners could be freed by Tuesday evening.
Israel holds roughly 11,000 Palestinian prisoners, many imprisoned in the past seven years of conflict. Because so many Palestinians have relatives imprisoned in Israel, releases are seen as an effective way of swaying Palestinian opinion in favor of moderation after more than a decade of failed negotiations drove many to support Hamas, which wrested control of the Gaza Strip in June.
Government spokesman David Baker said Cabinet voted 16-6 to free 90 prisoners affiliated with Abbas' Fatah movement. Officials said 10 other names were rejected on "security grounds."
Last week, Olmert told members of his Kadima Party that he would only release prisoners who are not serving time for attacks on Israelis, who identify with Abbas' government and renounce violence. "That is the only way to signal to Palestinian society that peacemaking and its culmination will yield results," he said.
Olmert spokeswoman Miri Eisin added on Sunday that all the prisoners who would be released would be militants with more than a year left to serve.
Because so many thousands of Palestinians remain in Israeli jails, aides to Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, say Israel must do more to bolster him after years of failed peace efforts.
"If there was a large release of prisoners it would support the Palestinian president and government, but when Israel makes unilateral moves it does not do much to support President Abu Mazen and the legitimate government," said Ashraf Ajrami, the Palestinian minister of prisoner affairs.
"What Israel is doing is ignoring Palestinian demands," Ajrami said.
The Palestinians have long demanded that prisoners serving lengthy sentences be released, and that names be coordinated with the Palestinians through negotiations.
A special Israeli ministerial committee was to meet later Sunday to decide on a final list of names, Eisin said. Israelis will then have 48 hours to challenge the release in the Supreme Court.
"In theory, Tuesday night or Wednesday morning, you can release the prisoners," she said.
Israel last released more than 250 prisoners in July. Olmert proposed the current release - timed to coincide with Ramadan, the Muslim holy fasting month - in his most recent meeting with Abbas two weeks ago.
The meetings are intended to yield guidelines for peace talks that would culminate in a final peace accord and the establishment of a Palestinian state.
The objective is to formulate those guidelines by a U.S.-sponsored peace conference tentatively scheduled in Washington in November. But the Palestinians are pressing for a more detailed document while Israel wants a vaguer text that will allow it more flexibility.
Hamas accused Fatah of working hand in hand with Israel.
"The 100 Palestinian prisoners are from Fatah, and that means continuing discrimination against prisoners, with Fatah's agreement," said Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri. "It's dangerous...when the occupation and Fatah play the same role in discriminating against the prisoners."
Hamas is sworn to Israel's destruction and has carried out dozens of suicide bombings that have killed more than 250 Israelis.