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Israeli cabinet waits on plan for freeing Palestinians

Olmert hopes to relax restrictions to help strike a deal on releasing a soldier captured by Hamas.

JERUSALEM - Prime Minister Ehud Olmert failed yesterday to immediately win cabinet support for a plan to make it easier to release some Palestinian prisoners - a change necessary for a deal to free an Israeli soldier captured by Gaza militants.

Cabinet officials met to discuss the plan but delayed a decision, saying they wanted to hold more discussions this week, Olmert's office announced. Reflecting the sensitivity of the matter, meeting participants were barred from talking to the media until a final decision was announced.

Officials said Olmert was seeking to relax the restrictions in hopes of reaching a deal with Gaza's Hamas rulers for the release of Cpl. Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier captured by Hamas-linked militants in a cross-border raid in June 2006.

They said the restrictions had prevented the government from freeing the hundreds of prisoners that would most likely be required to secure a deal.

Olmert's efforts coincide with overtures from Hamas for a cease-fire in Gaza, where weeks of Israeli ground and air strikes against militants have exacted a heavy toll. Israeli defense officials said Israel was considering the Hamas proposal, even though Olmert on Sunday ruled out a truce.

Israel's Channel 2 TV reported late yesterday that Hamas was seeking a cease-fire, an easing of Israeli economic sanctions on Gaza, and a large prisoner release as part of a deal for Shalit.

Israel's refusal to free Palestinian prisoners involved in attacks on Israelis has held up a proposed deal to swap 450 Palestinian prisoners for Shalit, Israeli defense officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because of the secrecy of the talks, which Egypt has mediated.

A key Olmert ally, Haim Ramon, led yesterday's meeting, which included Israel's foreign and justice ministers. Officials said the talks were expected to focus on a proposal to allow the release of Palestinians who have been involved in failed attacks on Israelis.

Israel is holding about 9,000 Palestinians. Because so many families have members in Israeli prisons, their release is a central Palestinian demand.

Although Olmert can change the rules himself, a unilateral decision would probably be highly unpopular with the Israeli public, the Yediot Ahronot daily reported.

Israel and Hamas had at one point agreed on a list of about 450 prisoners that included supporters of both Hamas and the rival Fatah movement of the moderate Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, said Ephraim Sneh, a lawmaker on parliament's influential Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.

But Israel's criteria now for releasing prisoners are so stringent that few prisoners could meet them, Sneh said.

"At the moment we modify the standards, we can have in our hands more cards for this tradeoff," Sneh said. "We give ourselves broader room to maneuver and more flexibility to achieve what we would like to achieve."

Israel and Hamas have no direct contacts because of the Islamic group's history of suicide bombings against Israelis and its refusal to recognize the Jewish state's right to exist.

Olmert held a rare meeting Sunday with Shalit's family, telling them there had been no breakthrough in efforts to win his release, Israel's Haaretz newspaper reported.

Probe: No Action On Cluster Bombs

Israeli military

prosecutors have decided not to take any legal action over Israel's use of cluster bombs during last year's war in Lebanon, the army said yesterday, closing an investigation into a practice that has drawn heavy criticism from the U.N. and international human-rights groups.

The probe determined

that Israel's use of the weapons, which open in flight and scatter dozens of bomblets, was a "concrete military necessity" and did not violate international humanitarian law.

The U.N. and


rights groups say that as many as one million bomblets failed to explode and now endanger civilians.

The army said its

chief investigator, Maj. Gen. Gershon HaCohen, determined "that the majority of the cluster munitions were fired at open and uninhabited areas, areas from which Hezbollah forces operated and in which no civilians were present." It said Israeli troops did everything possible to minimize civilian casualties.

The military's

advocate general, Brig. Gen. Avihai Mendelblit, accepted the recommendation and decided not to press charges.

- Associated Press