Israel offers peace concessions to Palestinians
POSTED: 8:05 a.m. EST, November 27, 2006
JERUSALEM (AP) -- Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert offered wide-ranging concessions if the Palestinians turn away from violence, saying Monday that they would be able to achieve an independent state in the West Bank and Gaza through real peace talks with Israel.
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the Palestinians were ready to negotiate a final peace deal.
"I believe Mr. Olmert knows he has a partner, and that is President Abbas. He knows that to achieve peace and security for all, we need to shoot for the end game," Erekat said.
As a first step, Erekat said, the two sides need to sustain a fragile new cease-fire along the Israel-Gaza border and also extend it to the West Bank.
"That will open the key to a political horizon," he said.
Olmert's offer came a day after the two sides implemented the cease-fire in Gaza, ending five months of widespread violence there and raising hopes that the agreement would lead to new peace efforts. It also raised the diplomatic stakes ahead of a visit to the region by President Bush. (Watch smoke trails from rocket attacks that threatened the cease-fire )
Relations between Israel and the Palestinians, already low after more than five years of fighting, further plummeted in January when the militant Hamas group won Palestinian parliamentary elections.
Israel cut off ties with the Hamas-led Cabinet and froze the transfer of hundreds of millions of dollars to the Palestinian government in an effort to pressure Hamas to recognize Israel and renounce violence.
Tensions exploded in June when Hamas-linked militants captured Cpl. Gilad Shalit in a cross-border raid, sparking a wide Israeli offensive in Gaza that killed more than 300 Palestinians, scores of them civilians. The violence also killed five Israelis.
Despite the offensive, Palestinian militants had insisted they would not release Shalit unless Israel freed hundreds of Palestinian prisoners. Israel publicly rejected the demand, leaving the two sides in a violent stalemate.
But in recent days, there have been signs of progress, particularly Olmert and Abbas agreeing to the cease-fire in Gaza that took effect Sunday morning, stirring hopes that further agreements could follow.
"The uncompromising extremism of your terror organizations ... haven't brought you closer to achieving the goal that I'm convinced many of you share -- to establish a Palestinian state," Olmert said in his speech at a ceremony commemorating the death of Israel's first prime minister, David Ben Gurion.
"We cannot change the past and we will not be able to bring back the victims on both sides of the borders," he said. "All that we have in our hands to do today is to stop additional tragedies."
Olmert said that Palestinians stood at a "historic crossroads" and could choose to continue on the path of violence or peace.