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A week after Prime Minister Ehud Olmert shelved his realignment plan, he told the cabinet Sunday that the Palestinian issue is not going to disappear, and "creative ways" must be found to "kick-start" the diplomatic process.
His comments came as the Arab League was expected to put forward a diplomatic process of its own at the UN later this month and amid increasing calls for an international peace conference.
Olmert told the cabinet that international conferences have historically been stacked against Israel and that the only international conference Israel would be willing to take part in was one focused on fighting terrorism.
Olmert said discussions were currently being held at various levels on how to empower the moderates in Palestinian society so that progress could be made on the road map. This, he pointed out, was the focus of his talks with visiting British Prime Minister Tony Blair on Saturday night, and would also be at the center of talks Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni will hold in Washington on Tuesday.
Blair held talks with Livni in Jerusalem on Sunday, as well as with Defense Minister Amir Peretz and Vice Premier Shimon Peres. In addition, he met with the families of the abducted soldiers.
According to Peres's office, Blair said he realized it would be impossible to move a diplomatic process with the Palestinians forward without the release of Cpl. Gilad Shalit.
Olmert told the cabinet that regardless of the ideas now being bandied about, Israel would not stray from the road map - the Quartet-backed plan largely shunted aside by disengagement and unilateralism.
While the road map leads through bilateral negotiations to a two-state solution, it has been impossible for some four years to get past the plan's first phase, which calls - among other things - for the Palestinians to dismantle the terrorist infrastructure.
"We prefer the road map more than any document that the international community can create," Olmert said. "It securely ties down Israel's basic interests."
Olmert said he tells all the leaders he meets that the best diplomatic documents in the world are meaningless if there is not an end to terrorism. Terrorism, he said, rendered all these documents null and void, for no public opinion would allow negotiations under the specter of terrorism.
At the same time, Olmert - dramatically shifting the focus from Lebanon to the Palestinians - told the cabinet that Israel could not afford a deadlock with the Palestinians, and that "a platform must be found that will give hope."
Within this framework he reiterated that he would be willing to meet without any preconditions with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas. He also revealed that he wanted to meet with Abbas during the war, but that the Palestinians declined.
Olmert said it was clear today that he couldn't release Palestinian prisoners, which he planned to do before Shalit was kidnapped in June, as long as Shalit was still being held.
Senior officials inside the Prime Minister's Office dismissed the argument that the road map was unrealistic because since Abbas was unable to implement it when his own Fatah party was in charge of the PA, it would surely be impossible now that Hamas was calling the shots.
"What are the options," one official said. "There is the feeling now that Abbas really wants dialogue, and that he is trying to be active on the ground to push forward his point of view."
He said there was a feeling that the Palestinian street was becoming increasingly disillusioned with the Hamas government, because it had not delivered on its pre-election promises.
This was supported by an assessment the cabinet heard from OC Military Intelligence Maj.-Gen. Amos Yadlin. Yadlin said there were signs indicating that Hamas understood that it was not bringing the results it had hoped for.
He said Hamas had not dealt with the PA's economic challenges, had been unable to bring about an end to the anarchy in Gaza, had been unable to burst out of its international isolation and had not been able to carry out terrorist attacks, despite its best efforts. Signs of public discontent inside the PA were growing, the cabinet was told, with the recent strikes there the best example.
The deputy head of the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), whose name cannot be published, said Abbas would be going to Washington on September 14 and wanted to go there with some "achievement" to present the US administration. For this reason, he said, Abbas was pushing Hamas to show "flexibility."
But, he said, Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal was the one putting obstacles in the way. He said that if the discussions on a national unity government go nowhere, it was quite possible Abbas might dissolve the present government and form a new one so that he could go to Washington with an achievement in hand.
He said it was not in Israel's interest for Fatah to join a PA national unity government, since this would give Hamas - as a member of that government - a degree of legitimacy in the international community.
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