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Monday, November 27, 2006

Olmert says Palestinians will be able to achieve independent state

Associated Press via International Herald Tribune
Nov. 27, 2006

Olmert says Palestinians will be able to achieve independent state
The Associated Press

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert offered wide-ranging peace
concessions to Palestinians on Monday if they turned away from
violence, saying they would be able to achieve an independent
state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in real peace talks with

In some of his most conciliatory remarks since winning election
in March, Olmert directly addressed the Palestinians, promising
to reduce checkpoints, release frozen funds and free prisoners in
exchange for a serious Palestinian push for peace.

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

His offer to restart long-stalled peace talks came a day after
the two sides implemented a cease-fire in the Gaza Strip, ending
five months of widespread violence there and raising hopes that
the agreement would lead to new peace efforts. It also raised the
diplomatic stakes ahead of a visit to the region by U.S.
President George W. Bush.

Relations between Israel and the Palestinians, already low after
more than five years of fighting, further plummeted in January
when the militant Hamas group won Palestinian parliamentary

Israel cut off ties with the Hamas-led Cabinet and froze the
transfer of hundreds of millions of dollars to the Palestinian
government in an effort to pressure Hamas to recognize Israel and
renounce violence.

Tensions exploded in June when Hamas-linked militants captured an
Israeli soldier in a cross-border raid, sparking a widescale
Israeli offensive in Gaza that killed more than 300 Palestinians,
scores of them civilians. The violence also killed five Israelis.

Despite the offensive, Palestinian militants had insisted they
would not release Cpl. Gilad Shalit unless Israel freed hundreds
of Palestinian prisoners. Israel publicly rejected the demand,
leaving the two sides in a violent stalemate.

But in recent days, there have been signs of progress. Olmert and
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas agreed to a cease-fire in
Gaza that took effect Sunday morning, stirring hopes that further
agreements could follow.

"The uncompromising extremism of your terror organizations ...
haven't brought you closer to achieving the goal that I'm
convinced many of you share — to establish a Palestinian state,"
he said.

Olmert's speech Monday at a ceremony commemorating the death of
Israel's first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, was an effort to
entice the Palestinians to return to peace talks, with the
Israeli leader promising an immediate improvement in their lives.

"We cannot change the past and we will not be able to bring back
the victims on both sides of the borders," he said. "All that we
have in our hands to do today is to stop additional tragedies."

He said that if the Palestinians establish a new government
committed to carrying out the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan
and securing Shalit's release, then he would call for an
immediate meeting with Abbas "to have a real, open, honest,
serious dialogue between us."

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb 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.

As a first step, Erekat said, the two sides need to sustain the
fragile cease-fire along the Israel-Gaza border and also extend
it to the West Bank. "That will open the key to a political
horizon," he said.

In what was billed in advance as a major policy speech, Olmert
said that Palestinians stood at a "historic crossroads" and could
choose to continue on the path of violence or peace.

Olmert said that Israel was willing to make far-reaching
concessions if they chose peace.

"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.

Olmert also said that Israel planned to release "many Palestinian
prisoners," including those serving long sentences, as a
trust-building measure after Palestinian militants freed Shalit
alive and healthy.

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

In exchange, Olmert said Palestinians would have to renounce
violence, recognize Israel's right to live in peace and security
and give up their demands to allow refugees from the 1948 Mideast
War to return to their homes in what is now Israel.

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