A government official said the cabinet voted 18 to 6 in favour a motion to release the prisoners.

Prisoner list

Olmert on Saturday rejected a preliminary list of names to be released drawn up by the Shin Beth internal security agency and the justice ministry, as the sentences of several of the people on it were due to end soon anyway.

"The prisoner issue needs more than gestures to be resolved, however, we welcome the release of prisoners any time"

Saeb Erekat,
senior aide to
the Palestinian president
"The prime minister believed the release would not only not help Abbas, but would actually be seen as a slap in the face," a senior government official told AFP on condition of anonymity.

Olmert has ordered a new list drawn up, with prisoners on it having at least a third of their sentence left to serve.

They are all to be members of secular Fatah and "men who can reinforce the moderates among the Palestinians," Miri Eisin, Israeli government spokeswoman, said.

Saeb Erekat, a senior aide to Abbas, welcomed the Israeli decision but urged it to draw up the list of those to be freed in co-ordination with the Palestinians.

"The prisoner issue needs more than gestures to be resolved, however, we welcome the release of prisoners any time," he said.

Fawzi Barhoum, Hamas spokesman, said the decision to only release of Fatah-affiliated prisoners was part of an attempt by Abbas to "reinforce the principle of separation" with Hamas.

Israel currently holds more than 11,000 Palestinian prisoners, just over half of them having been convicted of an offence and more than 800 of them being held without charge.

Fayyad meeting

After the cabinet meeting Tzipi Livni, Israeli foreign minister, met Salam Fayyad, the prime minister in Abbas new emergency cabinet, for the first time since the Palestinian leader took office last month.

"The discussion dealt primarily with the situation in the Palestinian Authority and the ways of improving the lives of the residents in the territories while preserving Israeli security interests," Livni's office said in a statement.

Officials announced on Sunday that the 22-country Arab League will send its first ever mission to Israel this week to discuss an Arab peace initiative and how it might support Abbas.

Jordan's foreign ministry said Abdul-Ilah al-Khatib, Jordanian foreign minister, and Ahmed Aboul Gheit, his Egyptian counterpart, would arrive in Jerusalem on Thursday for talks with Israeli officials including Olmert, Livni and Ehud Barak, the defence minister.