Israel offers incentives to Palestinians
JERUSALEM: Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel, trying to build on a shaky cease-fire in Gaza, offered Palestinians a series of incentives Monday, including negotiations and a prisoner release, if they turned away from violence.
There was little new in Olmert's speech. But the timing was important, because both Olmert and the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, are eager to bolster their own political positions, begin a serious dialogue and stop a bloody cycle of violence.
Olmert spoke just two days before President George W. Bush was to arrive in Jordan to discuss Iraq and other regional issues and one day after King Abdullah of Jordan warned of "the strong potential of three civil wars in the region, whether it's the Palestinians, that of Lebanon, or of Iraq."
Expectations are high that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice may come here after Jordan to try to solidify the fragile rapprochement that Abbas and Olmert are discussing, which may include an extension of the cease-fire to the occupied West Bank.
In his speech, Olmert appealed to Palestinians to turn away from militant resistance and commit to peaceful negotiations that would result in an independent state. "You, the Palestinian people," Olmert said, "are standing in these days at an historic crossroads."
If the Palestinians can form a new unity government that satisfies international standards and release a captured Israeli soldier, Olmert said, he would respond by immediately meeting Abbas; releasing hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, some of them serving long sentences; reducing checkpoints; and moving toward a further, unspecified withdrawal of Israeli settlers from the West Bank.
Olmert promised that Israel would also then release to the Palestinian Authority the $50 million a month in taxes and duties that Israel has collected for the Palestinians but withheld under the rationale that the governing Hamas faction is a terrorist group. The total so far this year is more than $500 million.
Palestinian reaction was cautious. Hamas, which does not recognize Israel's right to exist, was unenthusiastic, with the government spokesman, Ghazi Hamad, saying that Olmert was not specifying borders or willing to release enough prisoners.
Saeb Erekat, the Palestinian negotiator and aide to Abbas, said that "most important is to sustain the cease-fire" and extend it to the West Bank "in the next few days." If that happens, he said, "this will pave the way for a political horizon."
But all the steps proposed by Olmert - essentially confidence-rebuilding measures - are far short of serious negotiations about a peaceful solution to the conflict, which is nearly 60 years old.
One of the new elements in the speech was more subtle, an Israeli official said, pointing to Olmert's praise for moderate Arab states like Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Gulf states that "strive for a peaceful solution to the conflict between us."
Olmert said he found parts of a Saudi peace initiative to be "positive," the first time that an Israeli leader has done more than declare the initiative an internal Arab document, the official said.
The 2002 Saudi initiative, supported by the Arab League, offered normal relations with Israel in return for an Israeli withdrawal to its 1967 boundaries, the establishment of a Palestinian state and a just solution to the issue of Palestinian refugees. Olmert has said that Israel will not return to the 1967 lines but is willing to negotiate land swaps.
"I intend to invest efforts in order to advance the connection" with those moderate Arab states "and strengthen their support of direct bilateral negotiations between us and the Palestinians," Olmert said.
Abbas has regularly called on Olmert to begin negotiations with him, as head of the Palestine Liberation Organization, on a peace settlement that could be brought to a referendum of both peoples.
But Olmert has insisted on the nearly moribund existing peace plan that calls for the Palestinians in the first stage to begin to dismantle militant and terrorist organizations and for Israel to freeze all settlement activity.
Hamas argues that Israel makes concessions only when faced with "resistance to occupation," not when it negotiates.
Within hours of Olmert's address, Palestinian militants in Gaza fired two rockets toward Sderot in Israel, despite the cease-fire. One landed in Gaza, the other in the Sderot cemetery. No casualties were reported.
In an indication of Abbas's difficulties in keeping the Palestinian factions in line, responsibility for the rocket fire was taken by the Al Aksa Martyrs Brigades, which belong to his Fatah faction. Erekat asked for patience.
The militants said they were responding to the killing of two Palestinians and the arrest of 15 in an Israeli raid in the West Bank, where a truce is not in effect and where Israel said it discovered a bomb factory Sunday. One of the dead was a militant commander, Abdel Razek Bahar, 22, of the Popular Resistance Committees; the other was an innocent bystander, Fatma Nezal, 55, Palestinians said. The Israeli Army said its forces had been fired upon several times in Qabatiya and were returning fire.
Hamas, which was elected to run the Palestinian Authority last January, has agreed only to this cease-fire. But Egypt, encouraged by Abbas and by Washington, is pressing Hamas and its exiled political leader, Khaled Meshal, to agree to a new unity government that can meet international requirements, including recognizing the right of Israel to exist, even if Hamas as a movement does not.
Olmert argued to the Palestinians that the election of Hamas and "the uncompromising extremism of your terror organizations" have not brought Palestinians closer "to achieving the goal that I'm convinced many of you share - to establish a Palestinian state."
Olmert said that "in the framework" of talks and the existing road map to peace, Israel "will agree to the evacuation of many territories and communities we have created," a reference to Jewish settlements built since 1967 in the West Bank and regarded by most of the world as illegal.
Olmert was elected in March on a platform of carrying out a withdrawal of up to 80,000 Israeli settlers who live beyond the route of Israel's separation barrier, which cuts off 10 percent of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. Some 180,000 Israeli settlers live within the barrier and another 200,000 live in East Jerusalem.
With the violence in and around Gaza and last summer's war with Hezbollah in Lebanon, the idea of unilateral withdrawals was sharply criticized in Israel and Olmert shelved his plan.