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Senior Egyptian Official in Israel as Palestinians Prepare for Rice Meeting


A senior Egyptian intelligence official is visiting Israel Wednesday for talks on a possible prisoner exchange between Israel and the Palestinians. VOA's Jim Teeple reports from Jerusalem, senior Palestinian officials say they hope a meeting on Thursday between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will revive Mideast peace efforts.

Five months after Palestinian militants captured Corporal Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier serving on the Gaza Strip border, efforts to gain his release - and the release of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails are gaining momentum.

Omar Suleiman, the head of Egyptian intelligence - the key mediator in the prisoner-exchange effort - held talks with senior Israeli officials Wednesday. Last week Suleiman met with Khaled Meshaal, the supreme leader of Hamas who traveled to Cairo from his base in Damascus. Hamas is demanding that Israel free 1400 Palestinian prisoners, including 400 women and minors in exchange for Shalit. Israeli newspapers report that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert wants to free no more than 300 Palestinians. About 9,000 Palestinians are held in Israeli jails.

Earlier this week Mr. Olmert said he would hold direct talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, but only after Corporal Shalit was freed. Mr. Abbas meets Thursday with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in the West Bank city of Jericho. Their talks are expected to focus on how to extend a cease-fire agreed to by Israel and the Palestinians on Sunday - and revive the internationally-backed "road-map" peace plan which calls for an eventual Palestinian state next to Israel. Yasser Abed Raboo a close associate of Mr. Abbas told the Voice of Palestine Radio on Wednesday that Palestinians want to hear what U.S. officials plan to do to push the peace process forward.

Raboo says Palestinians want to know if the U.S. supports direct Israeli-Palestinian talks, or whether they would prefer that an international peace conference set the agenda for talks between Israelis and Palestinians.

Under the road-map plan, Israelis are to stop building settlements in the West Bank and Palestinians are to stop attacks against Israelis as part of a series of steps leading to final status negotiations aimed at the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Speaking Monday following the implementation of the ceasefire, Prime Minister Olmert said Israel was willing to dismantle settlements and release Palestinian prisoners to achieve a lasting peace with Palestinians. As a first step Mr. Olmert said Israel was willing to ease roadblocks and checkpoints in the West Bank if Palestinian violence subsided. However since then, Mr. Olmert has sounded a cautionary note, saying he is disappointed that Palestinian militants have continued to sporadically fire rockets at southern Israel from the Gaza Strip. Other Israeli officials have said they will respond if the attacks continue.

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