Israel Agrees to Release Palestinian Prisoners

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has agreed to release an unspecified number of Palestinian prisoners, an Israeli official said Sunday.

The move is intended as an overture to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas as the two sides try to move ahead on peace talks.

Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said that in a meeting between the two men in Paris on Sunday, Abbas brought up the issue of the thousands of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.

Regev says Olmert "agreed in principle" to such a release as a "gesture" to Abbas.

Because so many Palestinian families have members in Israeli jails, the issue is of prime importance for the Palestinian people.

The news came after Olmert said the countries have never been closer to a peace deal than now.

Abbas, standing with Olmert at the French presidential palace, said both sides are "serious and want to achieve peace."

Meanwhile, Olmert also said Sunday that Israel hopes to have direct contacts with Syria soon. The rival neighbors have been holding indirect talks mediated by Turkey.

Olmert and Abbas held talks Sunday with French President Nicolas Sarkozy ahead of a sweeping summit launching the Union for the Mediterranean, bringing together leaders of some 40 nations in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

"We have never been as close to a possible (peace) agreement as today," Olmert told reporters.

Repeated rounds of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks since a peace conference in Annapolis, Md., last year have produced little movement.

But the atmosphere was friendly when Olmert and Abbas posed on the steps of the Elysee Palace with Sarkozy in the center, arms linked.

Olmert's domestic troubles, meanwhile, have clouded peace efforts. Law enforcement officials announced the widening of the corruption investigation against Olmert. The ongoing investigations threaten his political survival and will make it more difficult at least in the short term to make major steps toward peace.

Palestinian negotiator Saeed Erekat said Sunday that those troubles were not affecting current discussions.

Syria's President Bashar Assad said Sunday that talks with Israel could move toward direct contact but suggested that would not happen until there is a new U.S. president in place.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.