Olmert Reaches Out

In a major policy speech delivered on the anniversary of David Ben-Gurion’s death, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert offered wide-ranging concessions to the Palestinians on Monday in order to try and persuade them to return to the negotiating table and begin serious talks about building an independent Palestinian state.  In Olmert’s speech, given just one day after a ceasefire in Gaza went into effect, he promised near-term quality of life improvements, including a reduction of checkpoints, as well as a prisoner release.  He also promised to release frozen funds and, perhaps most critically, to evacuate many settlements and territories.

Olmert’s proposed concessions and concurrent offer to meet with Abbas were contingent upon several Palestinian actions, including formation of a government committed to the “roadmap” and other existing peace agreements, the safe release of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, and a recognition of Israel’s right to exist. These terms appear to have generated an initially favorable reaction, according to Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, who also stressed the need to maintain and expand the shaky Gaza ceasefire.

Olmert’s announcement comes at a critical time.  Gaza has been engulfed in violence for months, President Bush is visiting the region this week, Olmert has been losing domestic support within Israel, and the Palestinians are attempting to form a stable unity government.  In addition, rumors had swirled that Secretary of State Rice had considered pursuing a summit between Prime Minster Olmert and President Abbas until negotiations for a Palestinian unity government faltered.  This effort could be reengaged, however. 

Prime Minister Olmert rightly asserted in his speech that the Palestinians stand now at a “historic crossroads.”  The Prime Minister has reached out to the Palestinian people, and it is imperative that they seize this moment to choose the path leading away from violence and towards peace and security for both Israelis and Palestinians. 

This may also be a pivotal moment for the Bush Administration’s Middle East policy.  On the cusp of his visit to the region, he has the opportunity to seize this moment and offer full U.S. support for new talks between Olmert and Abbas. 

There will likely never be perfect conditions for renewed Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, but Prime Minister Olmert’s offer of real concessions is the most positive chance in a long time, and the U.S. should aggressively support this opening.            

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Explore posts in the same categories: Israel, Middle East, Middle East Peace, Palestinians, Two State Solution

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