Olmert offers terms for peace

Palestinians react cautiously to his initiative

November 28, 2006|By Richard Boudreaux | Richard Boudreaux,Los Angeles Times

JERUSALEM -- Seeking to build on a shaky cease-fire with the Palestinians, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert offered yesterday to free prisoners, lift checkpoints and release tax revenue withheld from the Palestinian Authority in return for decisive steps by its leaders toward peace.

Olmert spelled out Israel's likely concessions under a final peace accord, including a withdrawal of troops and many of its settlements from the West Bank and the establishment of a Palestinian state.

"I hold out my hand in peace to our Palestinian neighbors in the hope that it won't be returned empty," he said during a ceremony at the tomb of David Ben-Gurion, Israel's founding father.

The offer was a switch for Olmert, who declared during his election campaign last spring that no Palestinian leader was capable of making a deal with Israel. Since his election, he has worked to isolate the Hamas-led Palestinian government.

Yesterday, he invited the Palestinians to help negotiate a lasting settlement, saying they stand at a "historic crossroads."

Hours later, two rockets fired from the Gaza Strip fell harmlessly in the Israeli town of Sederot, violating a two-day-old truce and threatening to undercut U.S.-backed diplomatic steps toward a meeting between Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Palestinian leaders reacted cautiously to Olmert's initiative.

"We want serious negotiations," said Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a spokesman for Abbas. Rudeineh welcomed the prospect of a release of prisoners and funds, but added: "We want to see acts, not just words."

Ghazi Hamad, a Hamas government spokesman, dismissed the Israeli leader's speech as "a new maneuver" but did not reject the idea of talks. "Olmert is speaking about the Palestinian state without giving details about borders," Hamad said.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the Bush administration views Olmert's speech as "constructive" and was working with moderate Arab states to help Israel and the Palestinians overcome differences. President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice are to visit Jordan tomorrow for talks about the conflicts here and in Iraq.

Olmert spelled out his conditions for a revival of Israeli-Palestinian talks, which collapsed nearly six years ago at the start of a Palestinian uprising.

First, he said, the Palestinians must release Israeli Cpl. Gilad Shalit, whose capture in a cross-border raid last June set off five months of fighting that the weekend cease-fire accord aims to halt.

He said the Palestinians must establish a new government committed to principles set by the United States and other Western governments but so far rejected by Hamas - recognition of Israel, renunciation of violence and acceptance of previous Israeli-Arab peace accords.

On those terms, Olmert said, he would invite Abbas "to meet with me immediately in order to conduct a real, open, genuine and serious dialogue" aimed at the creation of "an independent and viable Palestinian state."

The captured soldier's safe return to his family, Olmert added, would bring about the release of "numerous Palestinian prisoners, including ones who were sentenced to lengthy prison terms, in order to increase the trust between us." Also, he said, the Palestinian government would get hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue that Israel collected for it but had withheld after Hamas came to power last March.

Richard Boudreaux writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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