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Abbas Cancels Talks with Sharon In Dispute over Prisoner Release

By James Bennet

The New York Times -- JERUSALEM

The Palestinian prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, on Tuesday canceled talks scheduled for Wednesday with his Israeli counterpart, Ariel Sharon, to protest a planned release of Palestinian prisoners as a damaging diplomatic stunt, Palestinian officials said.

Israeli officials said the prisoner release, still set for Wednesday, was a politically difficult concession intended to strengthen Abbas. But Abbas’ allies called the move a blow to his credibility, saying that many if not most of the 338 prisoners were due to be freed soon anyway.

In a further complication, top Israeli security officials said on Tuesday that Iran was financing and directing new Palestinian violence.

Instead of easing the way for the current peace plan, the prisoner release has become a sticking point, with both sides seemingly aiming their arguments less at each other than at Washington. As Palestinian officials tried to play down the significance of the release, Israeli officials tried to draw attention to it, informing foreign reporters when and where the prisoners would be freed and promising “full media access.”

The peace plan does not specifically oblige Israel to release prisoners, and Israel has repeatedly characterized the step as a goodwill gesture. So far, it appears to be having the effect of obscuring the precise concessions demanded of each side, which neither has fulfilled.

Hisham Abdul Razeq, the Palestinian minister for prisoner affairs, dismissed any suggestion that the release would help Abbas, who is known as Abu Mazen. “Israel’s way of acting, since this government was created, is showing that their intentions are to destroy the government, to destroy Abu Mazen personally,” he said by telephone.

He said that Israel was wrong to determine unilaterally which prisoners would be freed.

The government has ruled out releasing prisoners with “blood on their hands,” a reference to those involved in terrorist attacks. Many of those to be released were convicted of acts like throwing stones or Molotov cocktails, or with being members of groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Israel had previously said it would release no members of those groups, but relented after Abbas objected.

It was a month ago that the government first voted to release hundreds of Palestinian prisoners. Since then, the number has declined from a previously announced figure of 540, in part because some finished serving their terms in the meantime, Israeli officials said.

Further, the planned release of an additional 99 prisoners, described by Israeli officials as 50 common criminals and 49 Palestinians caught illegally in Israel, has been postponed, Israeli security officials said. They said the government did not want to play into the Palestinian accusation that it was releasing only common criminals, whom the Palestinian Authority is not necessarily eager to see freed, and illegal workers.

Of those to be released, roughly half were convicted on Israeli charges and half are in “administrative detention,” under which Israel can hold prisoners without charge or trial for up to six months, with the possibility of extensions.

The government had said that priority in the release would be given to women and children. A senior security official said that fewer than a dozen of those to be released Wednesday were under 18; minors being held amount to a few dozen, he added. No women are to be released, officials said.