Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Monday he is willing to dismantle settlements and release Palestinian prisoners to achieve a lasting peace with Palestinians. VOA's Jim Teeple reports from Jerusalem that a day earlier, Israeli forces withdrew from the Gaza Strip, and most Palestinian militants agreed to stop firing rockets at towns in southern Israel, although there have been sporadic violations.
Speaking at a memorial service for Israel's founder, David Ben-Gurion, Ehud Olmert said, if Palestinians release an Israeli soldier they are holding, and form a unity government, he will meet immediately with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to discuss a wide range of issues that could lead to the formation of a Palestinian state.
Mr. Olmert says, Israel is prepared to release long-serving Palestinian prisoners, dismantle West Bank settlements and redraw Israel's border with the Palestinians, so that a Palestinian state, with territorial continuity, can be established. He says, if initial steps are taken by Palestinians to ease violence, Israel will ease roadblocks and checkpoints in the West Bank.
On Saturday, Palestinians and Israelis agreed to a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip, which Israel reentered in late June, after Palestinian militants kidnapped an Israeli soldier
Saeb Erekat is the senior Palestinian negotiator in talks with Israeli officials. He says the ceasefire should now be extended to the West Bank, and serve as a basis for broader talks that should lead to a settlement between Israel and the Palestinians.
"The main thing here is that, what we achieved with the tahadiya [the truce] in Gaza must spread to the West Bank in the next two or three days, and then, this will open the political horizons," he said. "We hope that the Israeli side will abandon unilateralism, and opt for bilateralism, and we are ready to negotiate with them immediately on the end game and on the permanent status talks."
Mr. Olmert's remarks on Monday are just the latest development in a flurry of activity over the past week that has involved so far unsuccessful talks by the Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah to form a unity government, discussions between senior Egyptian officials and Hamas leaders on a prisoner exchange with Israel, and the agreement between Israel and the Palestinians to enact a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip.
However, Hamas leaders, who control the Palestinian government, said Monday Mr. Olmert's remarks did not go far enough, and, while, for the first time in months, there were no clashes between Israelis and Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, Israeli troops carried out raids in the West Bank, where a Palestinian militant along with a civilian woman were killed.