RAMALLAH, West Bank – A senior Palestinian negotiator on Friday criticized Israel's planned prisoner release as insufficient to meet Palestinian expectations ahead of a crucial summit.
A day earlier Israel approved the release of 900 of an estimated 7,000 Palestinian prisoners, a gesture meant to build goodwill at Tuesday's meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (search).
Haim Ramon, a member of Israel's security Cabinet, said the prisoners to be freed are serving sentences of no more than four years and that none was involved in attacks on Israelis.
"It is not what we want," Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat said Friday. "It is not what our people want." He said Palestinians want Israel to release prisoners who have spent more than 20 years in jail.
The new Palestinian leadership sees prisoner releases as key to bolstering domestic support as Abbas proceeds with peace efforts.
Many Palestinian officials say Sharon's refusal to sanction a far-reaching prisoner release during Abbas' short-lived term as Palestinian prime minister in 2003 led to Abbas' downfall.
Israeli government spokesman Dore Gold said the prisoner release was part of an overall Israeli effort to stimulate political dialogue with the Palestinians, and called on the Palestinian leadership to move more decisively against militants.
"Now it remains to be seen whether the Palestinians will follow through (on the Israeli gesture) by making a full effort in the security sphere," he said.
As Israeli and Palestinian negotiators met Thursday to prepare an agenda for next week's summit in Egypt, differences emerged over what each side hopes to achieve. Palestinians want the summit to mark the start of a new political process to end the conflict; Israel wants only to deal with security issues.
Sharon told senior Cabinet ministers it is still premature to talk about restarting peace talks within the framework of the U.S.-backed "road map" for Middle East peace.
"We are not talking about peace now, and not about the road map, but rather about phases that come before the implementation of the road map," ministers quoted Sharon as saying.
Israeli officials say the prime minister wants to put off peace talks for fear they would interfere with his plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip (search) and four West Bank (search) settlements this summer.
Despite the friction, the Egypt meeting is expected to produce a joint cease-fire declaration formally ending more than four years of bloodshed.
Such a declaration is one of the first requirements in the road map, launched at a summit in Jordan in 2003 but quickly stalled by violence.
The road map calls for the establishment of a Palestinian state this year, though President Bush has termed that timetable unrealistic.