(photo credit: GPO/ AP)
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Sunday evening he would release frozen tax revenue to the Palestinian Authority and remove some West Bank blockades.
His words came on the eve of his visit to Washington, where the US Administration was expected to ask him to take significant steps to bolster Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, in order to show the Palestinians what they have to gain under the "moderates," as opposed to what they have to lose under the extremists.
"We will cooperate with this government," Olmert said in a Manhattan address to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. "We will defreeze monies that we kept under our control because we didn't want these monies to be taken by Hamas to be used as part of a terrorist action. And we will do what we can to upgrade the quality of life [in the West Bank]."
Olmert said that there were still terrorists in the West Bank waiting for the opportunity to attack Israel, and that the right balance had to found to allow more access to the Palestinians in the West Bank, without risking Israel's security.
"In the new circumstances we can perhaps take more risks than in the past," Olmert said. "The purpose is to project to the Palestinians that when they are ready to refrain from terrorism, there is a genuine chance for a different life for them and ourselves."
Olmert said that he would be willing to "talk seriously about a political horizon" with Abbas to define what a permanent agreement between Israel and the Palestinians would eventually look like.
Olmert went on to say that it must be ensured that a country like Iran is not able to achieve nuclear capability.
He stressed that it was possible to prevent Iran's attainment of nuclear weapons without military intervention.
"I believe that Iran can be stopped by non-military force. If the international community, led by the Bush administration, strives for this, it can happen," said Olmert.
The prime minister asserted that while the sanctions imposed against Iran were not useless, they were not effective enough, adding, "I will speak to President Bush about intensifying those measures."
He said that Israel was making explanatory efforts in the international community to deal with the Iranian nuclear issue, which he called the greatest danger of all, especially considering the threatening behavior of the Iranian president towards Israel.
The prime minister urged the international community to avoid displaying the same indifference on the Iranian threat as the world displayed during the Holocaust.
Olmert is scheduled to meet separately Monday in Washington with US Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and on Tuesday with President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney before flying back to Israel Tuesday evening.
Earlier Sunday, the prime minister told UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that the early evening Katyusha fire from Lebanon
underscores the need for UNIFIL to expand its mandate to make its presence felt in villages in southern Lebanon where it does not patrol today.
The events in the North provided yet another agenda item for Olmert's talks in the US.
"This is a very disturbing day, because we had an attack from Lebanon on Kiryat Shmona," Olmert said at a photo opportunity with Ban before a lunch meeting.
The prime minister said that while Israel was still clarifying who was responsible, the attack appeared to be the work of a "small Palestinian movement." The attack, he said, "reemphasized the role of UNIFIL and the Lebanese army in south Lebanon."
He said the attack would be discussed in his meeting with Ban, which was originally meant to focus on the idea of putting an international force along the Gaza-Egypt border and full implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1701 in Lebanon. Because of the Katyusha attack, however, Olmert did not even mention the developments in the Gaza Strip in his public comments before the meeting.
Although Olmert did not mention Gaza during his photo-opportunity with Ban, reflecting how the situation on the ground was playing havoc with his agenda items, he did talk about it extensively in the meeting.
During the meeting, Olmert told Ban, according to sources in the Prime Minister's Office, that the attack was carried out either by al-Qaida or by jihadist elements who wanted to provoke Israel and deflect attention from what was happening in the Gaza Strip.
Olmert told Ban that this illustrated how UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which put an end to the Second Lebanon War, was not being fully implemented. He made no commitments to Ban regarding an Israeli response to the attacks.
Olmert said that the situation in Gaza proved that Israel's policy of boycotting Hamas was correct, and he urged Ban not to give in to the temptation to try to work out a compromise between Hamas and Fatah that would reconstruct the failed Palestinian Authority national unity government.
Olmert talked extensively about the brutal violence in Gaza, and said that while Israel had no desire to intervene, neither it nor the world could sit idly by while innocent people were being executed there.
"We feel a responsibility there like we do for Darfur refugees," he said, adding that "we care for human lives."
Olmert also spoke at length with Ban about the fates of IDF reservists Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, abducted by Hizbullah.
Ban did talk about Gaza in his public remarks, however, saying that the world was "gravely concerned about the deteriorating situation in Gaza and in the region." He termed the "failure" of the Palestinian Authority national unity government a "setback" to the humanitarian situation, security and the peace process in the Middle East.
Ban said the Middle East Quartet - the US, EU, Russia and the UN - would hold a telephone conference on the situation on Monday morning, and that he would brief his colleagues regarding Olmert's take on the situation. He also said that a Quartet conference call was held on Friday.
Ban urged all sides to "exercise maximum restraint" and to resolve the situation through "dialogue and peaceful means." He said the UN was concerned about the approximately 10,000 UN employees in Gaza, most of them Palestinians, whose "security and safety were endangered." He also said the UN was concerned about the humanitarian situation there, since 80 percent of the population received direct UN aid.
Before the meeting with Ban, a senior official in Olmert's office said that although the prime minister had asked the Foreign Ministry and the National Security Council to draw up a proposal for an international force in the Philadelphi Corridor between Gaza and Sinai, this idea had been overtaken by events on the ground, and neither Egypt nor Hamas would now agree to such a force.
The official said Israel would only be interested in such a force if it had a mandate to act against terrorists, such as the mandate given to UNIFIL in southern Lebanon, but not if it only played a supervisory role, such as the EU monitors at the Rafah border crossing.
The Olmert-Ban meeting comes as Ban is scheduled, by the end of the month, to give two important reports to the Security Council. The first will be a periodic report on the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which ended the Second Lebanon War, and the second will be the findings of a team he sent to the Syrian-Lebanese border to investigate whether arms were being smuggled across the border, contrary to 1701.
The senior official in Olmert's office said UNIFIL had proven effective in southern Lebanon, but that it was not acting against Hizbullah inside the villages in the area.
UNIFIL's mandate expires in August, and Israel would like to see it also deploy along the Syrian-Lebanese border, to prevent the flow of arms to Hizbullah. For this to happen, however, Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora would need to make a formal request, something deemed highly unlikely because he does not want to further complicate his relationship with Hizbullah.
He also said that the Hamas takeover in Gaza has shown the world, and the Palestinians, what has been clear to Israel for some time - that nothing positive could come of a government in which terrorist elements played such a prominent role.
But, he said, "a government that is not a Hamas government is a partner, and we will work with it."
The senior government official said Israel would continue to supply gas, electricity and water to the Gaza Strip, and would not allow a humanitarian crisis to develop there. Without commenting on whether Israel would agree to any functional cooperation with Hamas, the official said that ways would be found to get food and medical supplies into the area as needed.
In a related development, Olmert, in an interview with The New York Times
timed for his US trip, said Israel needed to "deal seriously, openly and generously with the suffering of the Palestinians that has taken place over many years as a part of the conflict between us and them. We do want to say to the Palestinians that we are not indifferent to what happened to them."
Olmert, according to the Times
, was firm in saying that there would be no return of Palestinian refuges or their descendents to Israel, but hinted at compensation, although he offered no details.