Israel, Morocco meet over conflict with Palestinians
Jewish state says it will release 250 Fatah prisoners
PARIS -- The foreign ministers of Israel and Morocco held their first publicly disclosed talks in years yesterday, with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the heart of the discussion.
In separate meetings, French officials pressed Israel to take the initiative in bolstering moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni of Israel confirmed that her country would release 250 prisoners from Abbas's Fatah movement.
The Moroccan minister, Mohamed Benaissa, did not speak to reporters after meeting Livni, but shook her hand for the cameras.
Morocco broke off ties with Israel after the start of Israeli-Palestinian fighting in 2000, accusing Israeli forces of "inhuman acts" against Palestinian civilians.
It closed the Israeli liaison bureau in Morocco and Morocco's liaison office in Tel Aviv.
But contacts have continued, largely behind the scenes.
Before relations soured, Morocco played an important behind-the-scenes role in the Middle East crisis under King Hassan II, who died in 1999.
About 500,000 Israelis, about 10 percent of the Jewish population, are immigrants from Morocco or their descendants.
In her remarks to reporters -- she took no questions -- Livni said that Israel and moderate Arab nations including Morocco share common interests.
"We have the same concerns, we face the same threats, and so we want to see a process in place so we can move forward," she said.
Bloody street battles in the Gaza Strip ended with Islamic militants of Hamas seizing control last month of the tiny coastal territory from security forces of Fatah.
The rout prompted Abbas to evict Hamas from the Hamas-Fatah coalition government.
Hamas is sworn to Israel's destruction; Fatah seeks peace with the Jewish state.
Livni announced that Israel would shortly release prisoners to send a message to the Fatah government.
"Israel always keeps its promises," Livni told reporters.
"But to pass a message to the Palestinians and show them there is a difference with terrorists . . . we are going to free the 250 Fatah prisoners," she said.
Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner of France, who met with Livni, said he thought the time was ripe for a new momentum by Israel that could become "unstoppable."
"It's at this moment that we feel -- that all the observers feel -- there is a need to make a gesture," Kouchner told reporters after meeting with Livni.
However, French authorities, citing the delicate situation, would not divulge what gestures they had in mind.