Ehud Olmert, Israel's prime minister, said on Monday that he hopes to meet Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, soon and plans to set up an Israeli-Palestinian committee to negotiate the details of a prisoner swap.
Olmert spoke at a news conference with Tony Blair, the UK prime minister, who is visiting Israel as part of a Middle East tour.
The issue of prisoners has been a key sticking point in efforts to arrange a meeting between Olmert and Abbas.
The Palestinian leader wants Israel to release hundreds of prisoners. Olmert has said there can be no progress until Palestinian fighters release an Israeli soldier captured last June.
No Barghouti deal
Olmert said a new committee will be formed "in the coming days" to try to reach a deal on a prisoner release and said his aides meet with Abbas' representatives "often" to discuss a "wide range of subjects".
Earlier on Monday, Abbas also said he was eagerly awaiting a meeting with the Israeli prime minister.
Olmert was asked whether Israel would be prepared to release Marwan Barghouti, a Fatah leader serving five life sentences in an Israeli prison, in order to help strengthen the embattled Abbas.
He said Barghouti's release "was not on the agenda" at present and also ruled out holding any discussions with Syria.
Olmert also said Israel would be prepared to release some of the hundreds of millions of dollars it holds in seized Palestinian tax money for humanitarian purposes.
However, he ruled out a wider transfer of funds, fearing the money would make its way to Palestinian fighters.
Israel halted the monthly transfers after the Hamas was elected to power last January.
Israel considers Hamas, which is sworn to Israel's destruction, a terrorist group.
Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors. Originally posted at http://zionism-israel.com/israel_news/2006/12/olmert-optimistic-on-abbas-meeting.html. Please do link to these articles, quote from them and forward them by email to friends with this notice. Other uses require written permission of the author.