peace deal closer than ever: Olmert
July 13: Embattled Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert declared
Sunday that Israel and the Palestinians have never been closer
to making peace Ч even as a widening corruption probe brings
him closer than ever to being ousted from office.
help build confidence between the two sides, Olmert agreed
in a one-on-one meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud
Abbas to release an unspecified number of Palestinian prisoners
held in Israeli jails, an Israeli official said.
who met with Olmert at the French presidential palace ahead
of a summit of European, Middle Eastern and African leaders,
also sounded a positive note about the troubled peace talks,
saying both sides were "serious and want to achieve peace."
two men met with French President Nicolas Sarkozy before sitting
down together one-on-one.
have never been as close to a possible (peace) agreement as
we are today," Olmert said reporters before the three
leaders entered their meeting.
rounds of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks since a peace conference
in Annapolis, Md., last year have produced little change on
has continued its contentious construction of homes on lands
the Palestinians want for a future state, and has done little
to scale back a network of roadblocks in the West Bank that
hinder Palestinian movement and have severely handicapped
prospects for the Palestinian economy.
meanwhile, says Abbas hasn't done enough to curb militants
bent on attacking Israel, and the Palestinian president remains
powerless against Hamas militants who wrested control of the
Gaza Strip last year. Abbas rules only the West Bank, but
Israel says no peace deal could be implemented as long as
Hamas holds sway in Gaza.
the troubles on both sides, the atmosphere was friendly when
Olmert and Abbas posed on the steps of the Elysee Palace with
Sarkozy in the center. Olmert and Abbas each rested an arm
on the other's back.
the meeting, Olmert spokesman Mark Regev said Israel was committed
to "try to reach a historic agreement by the end of this
year." Such an agreement, he said, "would outline
what a two-state solution would look like."
a far less ambitious aim than the original objective set at
the US-hosted conference of reaching a detailed final deal
a "gesture" to Abbas, Olmert "agreed in principle"
to release some of the thousands of Palestinian prisoners
it holds, Regev said.
many Palestinian families have members in Israeli jails, prisoner
releases are of paramount importance to the Palestinian people.
Previous releases designed to bolster Abbas' standing among
the Palestinian people haven't satisfied the Palestinians,
because they have numbered in the dozens or hundreds.
had no details on how many prisoners would be released or
when, adding only that these prisoners would be separate from
any freed as part of any prisoner swap for captured Israelis.
plans on Wednesday to free five Lebanese prisoners in exchange
for two soldiers captured by Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas
in 2006. The soldiers are believed to have been killed during
or shortly after their capture, which touched off a monthlong
war between Israel and Hezbollah.
addition, Gaza's Hamas rulers have demanded the release of
hundreds of Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Gilad Schalit,
an Israeli sergeant with French citizenship whose release
Sarkozy has urged.
on Schalit's release are to be stepped up as part of a rocky
truce Israel reached with Gaza militants last month.
negotiator Saeb Erekat confirmed that Olmert promised to review
Abbas' request for a prisoner release "very positively."
He said the meeting Ч one of a series of get-togethers the
two leaders hold every few weeks Ч was conducted in a "good
to comment on Olmert's observation that the two sides were
closer than ever to clinching a deal, Erekat replied, "We
are having serious, in-depth negotiations on all issues."
main issues that have tormented peace talks for years have
been the final borders between Israel and a future Palestinian
state, the status of disputed Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinians
who fled or were expelled from their homes in the Arab war
on Israel that followed the Jewish state's creation in 1948.
said peace talks weren't affected by Olmert's domestic troubles.
On Friday, police announced that a corruption probe of Olmert
had branched out into a new direction, and that the prime
minister was suspected of billing multiple sources for identical
trips, and pocketing the difference.
May, Olmert saw his political fortunes plunge when a Jewish-American
businessman testified in a Jerusalem court that he gave the
Israeli leader hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash before
he became prime minister in 2006 Ч testimony that has raised
suspicions of influence peddling.
of the money, businessman Morris Talansky claimed, bankrolled
Olmert's lavish tastes in cigars, pens and travel.
lawyers are to cross-examine Talansky this week, but Israeli
political commentators have predicted that Olmert will not
be able to survive the latest allegations against him.
Olmert has denied wrongdoing and promised to resign if indicted,
but in the meantime, rivals in his governing Kadima Party
are working on holding primaries in September to replace him
as party leader.
Israel's political system, the leader of the governing party
usually serves as Prime Minister.