PM: Israel Must Renew Palestinian Talks

The Associated Press
Tuesday, September 5, 2006; 2:16 AM

JERUSALEM -- Prime Minister Ehud Olmert signaled a need Monday to pursue talks with the Palestinians, an official said, apparently edging away from a unilateral West Bank pullback plan that swept him to power in March.

Olmert's government also issued bids to build 700 homes in major settlements in the West Bank _ its largest settlement construction project since taking office in May.

There have been no official contacts between Israel and the Palestinians since the militant Hamas group, which is sworn to Israel's destruction, won Palestinian parliamentary elections in January.

But with Israel's recent war against Hezbollah guerrillas putting a chill on Olmert's program _ to uproot Jewish settlements and unilaterally draw Israel's border with the West Bank _ the Israeli leader again broached the idea of talks.

"We have no more urgent problem than that of the Palestinians," Olmert told parliament's influential Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, a meeting participant said.

Government spokeswoman Miri Eisin said Israel had no preconditions for a meeting between Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of the rival Fatah Party, who favors peace talks with the Israelis.

Palestinian lawmaker Saeb Erekat, an Abbas ally, said the president, known as Abu Mazen, was prepared to talk. "If Mr. Olmert says there are no conditions for a meeting, he knows that Abu Mazen stands ready for such a meeting," Erekat said.

Olmert's Kadima Party had pledged large-scale Israeli pullbacks in the West Bank, but Olmert shelved that plan after the war against Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon, leaving the future of Jewish settlements in the West Bank up in the air.

Asked where the West Bank pullback plan was going, Olmert told the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, "What I advocated several months ago has changed," according to the meeting participant.

Interior Minister Roni Bar-On told Israel Radio on Tuesday that the government has not completely abandoned the idea. "The plan is not dead, it's been postponed," he said. "It's not a priority right now. ... The plan has been put on the shelf."

Construction and Housing Ministry spokesman Kobi Bleich confirmed that the bids to build 700 homes in the Maaleh Adumim and Betar Illit settlements _ both outside Jerusalem _ represent the Olmert government's largest settlement construction project since taking office.

The Palestinians claim all of the West Bank, which Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war, as part of a future state. Erekat said the planned expansion of Maaleh Adumim and Betar Illit undermined efforts to revive peacemaking.

Olmert's appearance before the committee was his first since the Lebanon war ended three weeks ago, and he used the occasion to deliver a harsh warning to Syria, a patron of Hezbollah and Palestinian militants. If forced into war with Syria, Israel will strike more harshly than it did in Lebanon, the participant quoted him as saying.

More than 850 Lebanese were killed during the fighting, most of them civilians. The battles also left 159 Israelis dead, including 39 civilians hit by Hezbollah rockets in Israel's northern cities.

Three weeks after a cease-fire ended the war, Israel has a special legal team preparing to provide protection for government officials and army officers who could face related war crimes charges abroad.

There have been unsuccessful efforts in Europe in the past to try Israeli politicians and army officers on war crimes charges over other conflicts.

Amnesty International recently accused Israel of war crimes in the Lebanese war, but Israel has said all of its actions were legal, accusing Hezbollah of hiding among civilians in Lebanon and deliberately targeting Israeli civilians in rocket attacks.

© 2006 The Associated Press