Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Monday that Israel planned to release hundreds of Palestinian prisoners ahead of the Annapolis peace conference.
"These will not be prisoners with blood on their hands,' Olmert clarified at the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, adding that "this is a goodwill gesture aimed at improving the trust between the sides."
Last week, Ynet reported that the Palestinians asked Israel to release prisoners ahead of the conference and that Olmert said he would consider. Israeli officials clarified that the prime minister did not rule out additional gestures, such as the removal of West Bank roadblocks and speeding up the entry of Palestinian police officers into West Bank cities.
Knesset Member Yossi Beilin (Meretz) said in response that "the release of prisoners is an inseparable part of the diplomatic process and the plan to bolster the moderate elements in the Palestinian Authority." MK Silvan Shalom (Likud) said that "Israel is constantly engaged in making gestures, without getting anything in return."
The prime minister told the Knesset committee that he was certain Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad were committed to agreements and ready for peace with Israel as a Jewish state.
"I have no doubt that they are the only leaders among the Palestinians with whom we can negotiate," the prime minister told the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.
The meaning of the term "Jewish state", which Israel insists on, is preventing or dramatically limiting the right of return.
According to the Israeli plan, a Palestinian state will be responsible for finding a solution for the Palestinian refugees. If Israel is not recognized as a Jewish state, this will allow the return of a large number of refugees, who will violate the demographic balance.
Olmert arrived at the committee for a security discussion, and said that he was convinced that today's conditions were much better than the potential conditions two or three years from now.
He added that Israel must act now, as the current Palestinian government would not be able to exist for long without a definition of a diplomatic horizon.
Olmert with committee chairman, MK Tzachi Hanegbi (Photo: Gil Yohanan)
Addressing the Palestinians' ability to fulfill the agreements, the prime minister said that he did not need any reminders on the issue. According to Olmert, these estimates are true for the current situation, but reality could change.
"The current negotiations have an element which did not exist in the previous talks – not during the Oslo period and not during Bibi (former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu) and (former Prime Minister and Defense Minister Ehud) Barak's negotiations with (former Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser) Arafat.
"This time, we have agreed on a rule that will spare possible unpleasant results, if we reach an agreement that the Palestinians are unable to fulfill. There is an unequivocal agreement that the entire deal will be subject to an implementation of the Road Map (peace plan)," Olmert said.
The innovation is that we will try to reach an understanding of all the components of the solution based on two states side by side, but we will not have to implement something before the implementation of the Road Map's first stage," the prime minister added.
Olmert indicated that Israel would talk to the Palestinians on a variety of diplomatic and security issues, but will not implement a thing until the Palestinians fight terror.
MK Effie Eitam (National Union-National Religious Party) said in response that "Olmert is in fact conceding the Road Map's main condition – the dismantling of terror organizations. Olmert is going to negotiate with Abbas under terror, and this would be giving a prize to terror."
Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu said as he left the meeting, "Olmert is repeating the mistake made by Barak, who conceded everything for nothing. The prime minister explicitly said that he would concede Israel's main condition in the Road Map, according to which there would be no negotiations on the permanent agreement before the Palestinians dismantle the terror infrastructure.
"He gave up on this. This is not the way to negotiate and this is not the way to make peace."
Meeting, not conference
Addressing the upcoming US-sponsored peace conference, Olmert said that he viewed it as a meeting which he believed would only take about a one day. He added that the fact that the conference would take place was a success in itself.
"This is a one-of-its-kind agreement which is aimed at creating international support for our negotiations with the Palestinians," he said. "Immediately after the meeting, the sides plan to hold serious and intensive negotiations in order to reach the 'two states for two people' agreement. Annapolis could serve as a public launching of the dialogue with the Palestinians.
"My personal meetings with the Palestinian Authority chairman have so far been dedicated to examining each other and understanding how each of us views the potential developments. Although the meetings gave rise to the feeling that there are gaps between us, we managed to define our limits and estimate our abilities to reach agreements. My conclusion is that the gaps are not unbridgeable."
Unconditional talks with Syria
The prime minister also addressed the Syrian issue, saying that "the situation is calming down. Israel's restraint over the past few months has helped the Syrians understand that we have no interest in war. I hope the atmosphere continues to calm down.
"I certainly hope to see the Syrians at Annapolis, although the only issue which will be discussed there will be the Palestinian issue. Any country which arrives to back the process between us and the Palestinians is important. I would be happy to see countries like Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and the United Arab Emirates there.
"I want peace with Syria, and I am ready to negotiation with no preconditions. I hope that at the end of the talks with them the Syrians will halt all terror activities and leave the axis of evil.
"It is inconceivable that there is one responsible Israeli who would not want this. There are many who talk and don’t do, there are many who do and don’t talk. I don’t have to report immediately on everything I do," OImert said.