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Sharon wins Cabinet vote to free some Arab prisoners

Israel and the Palestinians embarked Sunday on one of the most emotionally charged phases of their new peace process: deciding whether Palestinian prisoners, some of whom were implicated in terrorist attacks, would soon be released from jail.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon pushed a 13-8 vote through his Cabinet to agree to terms for the freeing of several hundred Palestinian detainees, considered a key step in advancing the U.S.-backed peace initiative.

In an initial vote, members of Sharon's government rebuffed him, saying the conditions set for release of Palestinian prisoners were not tough enough. In a second vote, after a series of impassioned exchanges among his ministers, Sharon prevailed.

The question of prisoner releases goes to the heart of the conflict between the two sides, raising painful questions as to whether years of bloodshed, and the loss of hundreds of innocent lives, can be put aside in the interests of peace.

Almost universally, Palestinians regard compatriots who have languished for years in Israeli prisons as freedom fighters who sacrificed themselves for the cause of Palestinian statehood.

But relatives of Israelis killed in Palestinian attacks say that those convicted of spilling Jewish blood should under no circumstances be allowed to go free before their full terms are served.

With Sunday's vote, the Cabinet paved the way for release of as many as 400 Palestinians, according to media reports and officials present in the closed-door talks. That would represent only a fraction of the estimated 6,000 Palestinians in Israeli jails.

Israeli and Palestinian officials were to meet later in the week to comb through lists with names of prisoners whose release the Palestinians are seeking _ and of those whom Israel categorically refuses to free.

Those at the top of the release list would include women, juveniles, the infirm and those already approaching the end of a long jail sentence, Israeli officials said.

Among those to be kept behind bars, under the Israeli criteria approved by the Cabinet, are those who are on trial. That would appear to ensure that the best-known Palestinian prisoner, militia leader Marwan Barghouti, would stay locked up.

Barghouti, charged in connection with attacks that killed dozens of Israelis, has lately achieved a high political profile with his leading role in negotiating a truce with Palestinian militant groups from his jail cell, acting through intermediaries.

A large-scale prisoner release has been a key demand of both the Palestinian Authority, led by Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, and the Palestinian militant groups with which he has managed to strike a temporary cease-fire accord.

The Israeli Cabinet agreed that members of the radical groups responsible for the greatest number of attacks during the 33-month-old intifada _ Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad _ would not be allowed to go free.

Sharon was also reported to have assured his Cabinet that there was "no way" those directly involved in Israeli deaths would be released. However, that could leave some latitude in the freeing of those who were involved in some secondary way.

Along with prisoner releases, the next important element in moving ahead with the "road map" is the Palestinian demand that Israel withdraw from more of the West Bank.

"We are prepared to deliver other cities to the Palestinians," Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said after a meeting Sunday with Palestinian security chief Mohammed Dahlan.