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Prime Minister Ehud Olmert began preparing public opinion for the release of Fatah prisoners, which he announced in the Sharm summit yesterday, during his visit in Washington a week ago.

"The prisoners issue is always on our agenda. The question is when and under what circumstances," Olmert told journalists after his talk with U.S. President George W. Bush.

"Obviously the way to Shalit's release is not through Abbas," he said.

Olmert was looking for a way to escape from equating freedom for Shalit with a release of Palestinian prisoners. The Hamas conquest of Gaza provided the opportunity to break this linkage.

The trial balloon Olmert floated in Washington was intended to avoid possible claims that he had changed his tack. If attacked he would say: "I didn't say I wouldn't release prisoners."

The prisoners' release was not part of Olmert's original package of gestures to Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, together with transferring the Palestinians' tax money, removing roadblocks in the West Bank and other "alleviations."

Olmert confidants said that after the cabinet session on Sunday the prime minister began examining the possibility of releasing Fatah prisoners. He spoke to Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz and other ministers.

Olmert explained yesterday that he decided to release 250 Fatah prisoners from the West Bank with no "blood on their hands" for three reasons: the release would not harm Shalit, it would strengthen Abbas and would increase the pressure on Hamas, which failed to release any of its own prisoners in Israel.

The cabinet is expected to support the prisoner release at Sunday's session despite the objection of Minister Avigdor Liberman (Yisrael Beiteinu).

Releasing the prisoners would be the most significant gesture that Olmert has made toward the Palestinians since entering office. Most of his other promises, mainly opening border passes and removing roadblocks, faded away due to the escalation in the security situation.

However, the number of released prisoners is small compared to previous Israeli gestures to Abbas in the days of Ariel Sharon. The criteria set by Sharon's government excluded Fatah veterans who have been jailed since before the Oslo agreements, or Marwan Barghouti. Therefore it is unlikely that the release would bolster Abbas' status in the West Bank and turn him into a powerful leader.

But Olmert scored at least one achievement with his surprising announcement of the release. He managed to even the score with Hamas, to a certain extent, for stealing the show from the Sharm summit by releasing the Shalit cassette a few hours earlier.