Defense Minister Ehud Barak met Wednesday night with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and announced Israel would ease restrictions for Palestinians living in the West Bank. This ahead of US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's visit to the region this coming Friday.
"The list of steps we intend to take to make life easier for the Palestinians, without relinquishing our overriding security responsibility, is important in moving the negotiations forward and maintaining a positive atmosphere," Barak told reporters before the meeting.
Barak issued a statement detailing the expected Israeli overtures, which include the removal of dirt roadblocks, boosting the number of entry permits for Palestinian laborers into Israel, easing travel for businessmen and the transfer of some 300 vehicles to Palestinian government employees.
The two met in private at Barak's Tel Aviv home and the defense minister's office described the two-hour meeting as "candid and serious."
But Barak stopped short of promising to remove checkpoints, arguing they help to prevent attacks by militants. Palestinians say the roadblocks amount to collective punishment.
Ramiro Cibrian-Uzal, the EU ambassador to Israel, said he was informed by Israeli authorities that some 1,500 Palestinian business owners would get the special travel permits, and called it a "firmer commitment" by Israel to boost the peace process.
An Israeli official said some 1,000 Palestinians already had the special permits.
Israel said earlier this week that it would also allow up to 600 members of a Palestinian security force trained in Jordan under a US program to be deployed in the West Bank city of Jenin. The force will not complete training before the end of May.
A State official in Jerusalem warned on Wednesday that the Palestinians should not belittle Israel's gestures, which he said are being extended in an attempt to strengthen Fayyad's government and the standing of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. "These overtures are extremely significant and one must take into account that they are being done while in the South rockets are still being fired on innocent civilians," said the official.
Reuters contributed to this report