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French Version

Olmert 'ready and willing' to join 'serious dialogue' on peace

PM lists incentives as army kills 2 palestinians in west bank

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Monday proposed a "serious dialogue" for regional peace, saying he was prepared to grant Palestinians a state, release desperately needed funds and free prisoners. "We are ready and willing to pursue this path, and persevere until we reach the sought-after solution," Olmert said in a keynote speech in honor of Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, who came to power in 1949.

The remarks came just hours after two Palestinians were killed by Israeli troops in the occupied West Bank, prompting Palestinian militants to fire rockets into Israel in retaliation.

Israeli troops withdrew from Gaza on Sunday, in keeping with the terms of a cease-fire following five months of Israeli operations in the Gaza Strip.

Welcoming the cease-fire, the EU suggested Monday that the international Quartet become more visible in Mideast peacemaking, possibly by monitoring the brittle Gaza Strip truce.

Olmert said he would propose "an immediate meeting with Abu Mazen [President Mahmoud Abbas] to engage in open, sincere and serious dialogue" if a new Palestinian government emerges and commits to international conditions, the so-called "road map" and the release of abducted Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

"In that framework and in keeping with the road map you could create an independent and viable Palestinian state with territory in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank], a state with total sovereignty with defined borders," he said.

"These borders will be different from the territories currently under Israel's control.

The speech signaled an attempt to entice the Palestinians back to the negotiating table by outlining likely Israeli concessions under a future peace deal.

"We, the state of Israel, will agree to the evacuation of many territories and the settlements that we built there. This is extremely difficult for us, like the splitting of the Red Sea. We will do it for real peace," he said.

Israel would pull out of West Bank land and uproot settlements under a peace deal, Olmert said.

"I hold out my hand in peace to our Palestinian neighbors in the hope that it won't be returned empty," Olmert said.

Olmert's speech came with Abbas due to brief Jordan's King Abdullah II on efforts to form a unity government with Hamas and to consolidate the truce.

With his trip on the eve of a visit of US President George W. Bush, the Palestinian press has

speculated that Abbas and Bush will meet Wednesday in Amman, although top Abbas aide, Saeb Erekat, said that "nothing was decided."

Reacting to Olmert's speech, Erekat said the Palestinians were ready to negotiate a final peace deal.

"I believe Mr. Olmert knows he has a partner, and that is President Abbas. He knows that to achieve peace and security for all, we need to shoot for the end game," Erekat said.

But the Palestinian Cabinet said it was suspicious of Olmert's outreach.

"This is a conspiracy. This is a new maneuver. Olmert is speaking about the Palestinian state without giving details about the borders," said Ghazi Hamad, a government spokesman.

In return for a serious Palestinian push for peace, Olmert said that Israel planned to release "many Palestinian prisoners," including those serving long sentences, as a trust-building measure provided Palestinian militants freed Shalit alive and healthy.

Government officials said they had not ruled out releasing Palestinian uprising leader Marwan Barghouti.

Israel will also ease the checkpoints across the West Bank, improve the border terminals in Gaza, release the frozen money to the Palestinians and help develop a plan to rehabilitate their crippled economy.

The European Union welcomed Olmert's speech and the cease-fire as signs of hope.

"For the first time for a long period we do see some very concrete rays of hope," said Finnish Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja as the EU opened two-day talks for the bloc's foreign ministers along with Israel and its Arab neighbors in the Finnish town of Tampere.

Spain was due to outline a Middle East peace initiative at a dinner with Arab and Israeli ministers on Monday night.

"I think the Quartet has a fundamental responsibility at this point in time," said Javier Solana, the European Union foreign affairs chief.

He said the group could "establish a mechanism to monitor the cease-fire. I think that would be an important confidence-building measure." He did not elaborate, but said he expected Quartet members EU, Russia, the UN and the US to meet in a matter of weeks.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmad Abou al-Gheit, who said of the Israel-Palestinian cease-fire "has to be stabilized. Then we have to push forward to ... an exchange of prisoners."

Despite the tenuous calm, a member of the Popular Resistance Committees and a 50-year-old woman were killed during an Israeli operation in the occupied West Bank.

In retaliation, Palestinian militants fired two rockets towards Israel, causing no damage or casualties in an attack that was claimed by Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyya condemned the killings, urging Israel to halt its offensive push in the West Bank to "preserve the climate we have founded these last two days."

Beirut,11 28 2006
The Daily Star
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