Annapolis will change road map paradigm - Olmert

The Annapolis summit will change Israel's strategy toward the Palestinians that has been in place since the road map diplomatic agreement signed by former prime minister Ariel Sharon in 2003, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert revealed in a briefing to the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Monday. The road map was a staged agreement in which both sides held that negotiations on a new phase would not begin until the previous one had been completed. Olmert told the committee that the stages would remain in place for the implementation of the diplomatic steps, but not for the negotiations. "In the past, the Israeli policy was not to talk about the future as long as the current situation was unstable," Olmert told the committee. "Now we have realized that we can permit ourselves to change something. The implementation of all agreements by both sides will be subordinate to the road map. We will try to reach an agreement based on two states for two peoples, but we won't have to implement anything until after the first stage of the road map, in which the Palestinians have committed to fight terror." Olmert said it was unlikely that there could be a better Palestinian leadership - from Israel's standpoint - in the foreseeable future. He said that Israel needed to take advantage of such an opportunity to create a Palestinian state in order to maintain a Jewish majority in Israel and "avoid ending up like South Africa." "I think that every grain of sand between the Jordan and the Mediterranean is an undivided part of the Land of Israel historically, but we need to withdraw from territory to maintain a Jewish and democratic state," Olmert said. "I am convinced that the international and regional conditions are better today than they will be in another year or two or three. I don't think the current Palestinian leadership can sustain itself without an effort to define the diplomatic horizon. Hamas could take over the West Bank." MK Zvi Hendel (NU-NRP) interrupted Olmert and accused him of "hutzpa," saying that the possible rise of Hamas was also given as the reason to withdraw from the Gush Katif bloc of Gaza Strip settlements, where Hendel had lived. Hendel said that Hamas arose because Israel withdrew from Gaza. Likud chairman Binyamin Netanyahu accused Olmert of abandoning the staged process of the road map "in both procedure and principle." He said that in Annapolis, Israel would make a series of concessions and the Palestinians would not make any. Olmert responded that neither Israel nor the Palestinians ever implemented the first stage of the road map. He told Netanyahu that the Likud's policies were "fleeing from history" and would result in Hamas taking over the West Bank and Israel being left without international support. Netanyahu also reacted to reports that Olmert intended to release more Palestinian prisoners ahead of the summit. Olmert's office denied reports that Olmert told the MKs that he would release more than 400 Palestinian prisoners as a goodwill gesture ahead of the summit. They said Olmert did not mention a specific number. "I am in favor of anything I can do to strengthen Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas," Olmert told the committee. "That means not just releasing prisoners." Downplaying the significance of the upcoming meeting, Olmert said it was "just the public launching of negotiations between us and the Palestinians" and not a summit; he noted that the conference would only last a few hours. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who will head the Israeli negotiating team at Annapolis, also downplayed the summit at a meeting of the Kadima faction, saying that what was really significant was the process of negotiations that would begin only after Annapolis. She told the faction that one of Israel's goals in the process was to maintain as many Jewish homes in the West Bank as possible. Livni also met Monday with the head of the Palestinian negotiating team at Annapolis, former Palestinian prime minister Ahmed Qurei, who canceled his meeting with Livni on Sunday after he was held up at an IDF checkpoint.