Israel offers new concessions

Peace plans hinge on drop in Palestinian violence


JERUSALEM - With the Bush administration preparing to push a new Middle East peace initiative, Israel said yesterday that it was willing to pull back troops, release some Palestinian prisoners and ease travel restrictions if an emerging Palestinian government made a serious effort to halt violence.

But Palestinians cautioned that the steps were not a substitute for full Israeli acceptance of the international peace plan known as the "road map."

"All this talk about confidence-building measures, as kind as it may sound, is part of an attempt to do away with the road map," said Nabil Shaath, a Palestinian Cabinet minister and negotiator. "What is required of Israel is to accept the road map. Then there will be a detailed plan for everyone to follow."

Raanan Gissin, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said: "We are talking about a package of humanitarian assistance and the easing of security restrictions. Of course, it is contingent on the Palestinian security forces showing they are dead serious about taking action against terrorists."

The incoming Palestinian prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, has been a critic of the Palestinian violence, calling it counterproductive. But Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other groups that have carried out suicide bombings and other attacks say they plan to press ahead, and it is not clear how forceful Abbas will be in confronting them.

The United States and its partners - the European Union, the United Nations and Russia - intend to present the plan formally when a new Palestinian government is established. That could happen within days, though Abbas is still wrangling with the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, over the makeup of the Cabinet.

Sharon, who has shunned Arafat, says he is prepared to sit down with Abbas, widely known as Abu Mazen.

Israel is prepared to remove troops from some Palestinian cities and towns where they have been for most of the past year, Gissin said, if Palestinian security forces can take over.

Also, Israel said it would be willing to release some of the more than 5,000 jailed Palestinians.

With the Palestinian economy in shambles, Israel is also considering allowing more Palestinians into Israel to work. Before the Palestinian uprising, some 150,000 Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip commuted daily to Israel, mostly for work. Today, that number is about 10,000.

Israel is also willing to increase the amount of money it sends to the Palestinians from the taxes and customs duties collected on their behalf, Gissin said. Israel has withheld hundreds of millions of dollars in such revenue, saying it believed some of the money was being used by the Palestinian Authority to finance violence.

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