Peace deal closer than ever: Olmert

Israel to release some Palestinian prisoners

PARIS: Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Olmert declared on Sunday that Israel and the Palestinians have never been closer to making peace — even as a widening corruption investigation brings him closer than ever to being ousted from office.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas — who met Mr. Olmert at the French presidential palace before a summit of European, West Asian and African leaders — also sounded a positive note about the troubled peace talks, saying both sides were “serious and want to achieve peace.”

To help build confidence between the two sides, Mr. Olmert agreed in a one-on-one meeting with Mr. Abbas to release an unspecified number of Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails, said an Israeli official. They met French President Nicolas Sarkozy before sitting down together one-on-one.

“We have never been as close to a possible [peace] agreement as we are today,” said Mr. Olmert before the three leaders entered their meeting. Repeated rounds of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks since a peace conference in Annapolis, Maryland, last year have produced little change on the ground.

Obstacles remain

Israel 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.

Israel, meanwhile, said Mr. Abbas has not done enough to curb militants bent on attacking Israel, and Mr. Abbas remains powerless against Hamas, who wrested control of the Gaza Strip last year. Mr. Abbas rules only the West Bank, but Israel says no peace deal could be implemented as long as Hamas holds sway in Gaza.

Despite the troubles on both sides, the atmosphere was friendly when Mr. Olmert and Mr. Abbas posed on the steps of the Elysee Palace with Mr. Sarkozy. After 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.”

As a “gesture” to Mr. Abbas, Mr. Olmert “agreed in principle” to release some of the thousands of Palestinian prisoners it holds, said Mr. Regev. Because many Palestinian families have members in Israeli jails, prisoner releases are of paramount importance to the Palestinian people. Mr. Regev had no details on how many prisoners would be released or when, adding only these prisoners would be separate from any freed as part of any prisoner swap for captured Israelis.

Israel plans on Wednesday to free five Lebanese prisoners in exchange for two soldiers captured by Hizbollah in 2006. Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat confirmed Mr. Olmert promised to review Mr. Abbas’ request for a prisoner release “very positively.” Asked to comment on Mr. Olmert’s observation that the two sides were closer than ever to clinching a deal, Mr. Erekat replied: “We are having serious, in-depth negotiations on all issues.” — AP

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