Israel's Cabinet voted yesterday to release up to 100 Islamic militants, a goodwill gesture toward the Palestinians ahead of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's trip to Washington this week.
Israel Radio and Army Radio said ministers voted 14-9 to authorize the release, reversing government opposition to freeing members of Islamic militant groups. Liran Gordon, spokeswoman for infrastructure minister Yossef Paritzky, confirmed the result.
The prisoner issue is key to reinvigorating stalled peace moves.
The Palestinians want Israel to release most of the estimated 7,700 Palestinian prisoners it holds. Israel has agreed to free a few hundred, but had previously said these would not include members of Hamas or Islamic Jihad.
Sharon hopes Cabinet approval for the release of dozens of inmates who are members of those groups will help ease pressure on him, and show Israel is committed to the US-backed "road map" plan for Middle East peace.
Sharon was due to leave for the US later yesterday and is scheduled to meet US President George W. Bush tomorrow.
On Friday -- as Bush was meeting with Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas -- Israel announced several other steps that seem designed to demonstrate it is sincere about the road map, which aims to end almost three years of violence and establish a Palestinian state by 2005.
They include plans to pull troops out of two more Palestinian cities and dismantle three roadblocks in the West Bank. The first of the roadblocks, the Surda checkpoint near Ramallah, was dismantled by Israeli army bulldozers yesterday.
Abbas urged the US to press Israel for more concessions, including freezing Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip -- a stipulation of the road map that Israel has not carried out -- and the dismantling of a security barrier being built near Israel's dividing line with the West Bank.
After the meeting, Bush expressed strong support for Abbas and said he would bring up Palestinian demands with Sharon. Bush criticized Israel's security barrier -- which in places will veer deep into the West Bank to bring Jewish settlements into the "Israeli" side -- and said settlements must end.
But Bush also said terrorism must be rooted out, an apparent nod to Sharon's demand that the Palestinians move to disarm the militant groups. The road map says the Palestinians must dismantle "the infrastructure" of the groups; Abbas refuses to do that by force, preferring persuasion.
Abbas' trip was the first by a Palestinian leader to the Bush White House. Sharon's will be his eighth since taking office in March 2001, and he hopes to shore up American sympathy for Israel's security concerns.
Under the road map, both sides are supposed to act in tandem, but progress has bogged down over who should make the next move.
Israel has pulled troops out of parts of the Gaza Strip and from the West Bank town of Bethlehem, but has been reluctant to do more until the Palestinians crack down on militant groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which have killed hundreds of Israelis in shootings and suicide bombings.
Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement declared a unilateral cease-fire on June 29, bringing a sharp drop in violence after 33 months of fighting. But the militants say they will call off the truce unless Israel acts, especially on the prisoner issue.