Leading article: Only a first step to peace

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It would be easy to be cynical about Israel's release of 57 Palestinian prisoners yesterday in an attempt to bolster the authority of the man they see as the moderate Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas. The number released is fewer than the average number of Arab militants detained by Israeli forces each month, joining 11,000 Palestinians in Israeli jails, many imprisoned without trial.

But Israel continues to send out contradictory signals. On the one hand this is the second release of prisoners since the summer. The Israeli army was forceful with Zionist extremists who set up five new wild-cat settlements in the West Bank at the weekend, forcing the swift closure of four of them. And 80 Palestinians were allowed to cross from Egypt into the Gaza Strip on Sunday in a rare sign of cooperation with Gaza's Hamas rulers.

On the other hand, Israeli warplanes launched an attack on a target in Syria last month. Its politicians hint that they are moving closer to ordering a large-scale military offensive to halt rocket attacks from Gaza. And Israel is moving ahead with plans to open a new police headquarters on the West Bank, in a move designed to cut off east Jerusalem from its Arab hinterland.

All these signals and counter-signals are part of the complex process of bluff and double-bluff which constitutes the politics of the region. Tomorrow Mr Abbas is due to meet the Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to prepare the way for a major Middle East conference on Palestinian statehood, to which all key Arab nations will be invited, in the United States next month. They are, of course, a long way from agreement. Mr Olmert wants a broad-brush joint statement, while Mr Abbas wants an explicit framework and timetable dealing with "final status" issues such as the fixing of borders, the future of Jerusalem and the fate of millions of Palestinian refugees. Meanwhile, Syria is shouting unhelpfully from the sidelines that it will not attend unless the Golan Heights are on the agenda.

In this elaborate diplomatic gavotte, Israel would do well to take two further steps. It should release Marwan Barghouti, the jailed leader of Fatah's young guard, scourge of the corruption inside Yasser Arafat's old party and a Palestinian who has condemned suicide bombings inside Israel. He is a future leader of the Palestinians. The Israelis, who are masters of political pragmatism, should acknowledge that, just as they should begin to treat with Hamas, which won power from Fatah in a democratic election last year.

The last peace talks broke down in 2001. Only such bold gestures will demonstrate the good faith which will get them restarted.

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