Wednesday, 29 November 2006

Israeli olive branch: Olmert touts peace push



JERUSALEM - Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert made a dramatic bid for peace with the Palestinians yesterday, offering wide-ranging concessions and recognition of a Palestinian state in return for a permanent end to violence.

Olmert said if the Palestinians formed a new government that was willing to negotiate with Israel, he would start peace talks aimed at dismantling settlements and withdrawing Israeli forces from large parts of the West Bank in order to create "an independent and viable Palestinian state ... with full sovereignty and defined borders."

"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.

Speaking at the graveside of Israel's founding prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, Olmert also offered a mass release of Palestinian prisoners in return for Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, abducted on June 25.

Olmert urged the Palestinians to abandon radicalism and said they were standing at "an historic crossroads."

He also ordered the Israeli Army not to respond for a second day as rockets slammed into southern Israel, breaking a fragile day-old truce.

Spokesmen for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas welcomed Olmert's overtures, but the Hamas-led government dismissed them as "a conspiracy ... a maneuver."

Only a few weeks ago, Olmert dismissed talk of a prisoner swap and demanded Shalit's unconditional release. The sudden about-face came after five months of violence and a sudden buildup of Israeli military forces around Gaza which appeared to convince the Palestinians they would be invaded if they did not end the daily rocket attacks.

The Israelis also told the Palestinians that a ceasefire was the only way to end an economic boycott that has reduced the Palestinian Authority to near bankruptcy.

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