PM: Barghouti release is not an option

"I'm ready for territorial compromises, and I haven't changed my mind."

barghouti prison 298.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
barghouti prison 298.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
The release of imprisoned Tanzim leader Marwan Barghouti is not an option, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told reporters during his flight to Washington, DC to meet with US President George W. Bush.
  • Analysis: A full plate for Bush and Olmert "I don't intend to go into details about the upcoming contact with the Palestinians," Olmert said just before landing in the US. Olmert also repeated his refusal to specify what Israel's "many options" on the growing Iranian crisis were. Olmert reiterated the statements he gave Saturday in an interview to Newsweek-Washington Post that Iran would agree to compromise on its nuclear program only if it had a real reason to fear reprisals for failing to comply. Olmert added that he was under no diplomatic pressure to meet with Bush, but thought it appropriate to do so on his way to the 2006 General Assembly in Los Angeles. Before leaving for Washington on Saturday night, the prime minister reaffirmed his commitment to territorial withdrawal from Judea and Samaria. "You can read my lips: 'I'm ready for territorial compromises‚ and I haven't changed my mind," Olmert said in the Newsweek interview. In the interview, Olmert breathed new life into the realignment plan, which would see Israel retain highly populated settlement blocs within Judea and Samaria and relinquish isolated areas. Until now, analysts had assumed that Olmert had dropped the plan. But on Saturday he said it could still be on the table, with some modifications. "After the fighting in Lebanon, and also the failure of the Palestinians to cope with continued terrorist attacks, I have second thoughts about the ability to accomplish the two-state solution through realignment. It is definitely not dead but it has to be reexamined," said Olmert. According to a government source, Olmert might be willing to give up 90 percent of the West Bank. The source added that this scenario would only be implemented if the Palestinians completely halt terrorism. This interview, along with speeches Olmert gave on Thursday in which he spoke of the unique and substantive offers he would make to the Palestinians if they relinquished terror and recognized Israel, have raised expectations for his Washington trip. On Sunday, Olmert is scheduled to meet with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley. On Monday, Olmert will meet with President George W. Bush. It will be their second meeting in Washington since Olmert took office last spring. In May, the two leaders discussed realignment and the growing threat from Iran, two topics that are on their agenda this time as well. In the six months since Bush and Olmert last met, there has been no progress on either issue. Neither the United States nor the international community has managed to halt Iran's nuclear program. Israel's war with Hizbullah caused politicians to re-think the wisdom of unilateral concessions and ended, until Saturday, any talk of realignment in the near future. The war also weakened Olmert's hold on the coalition and forced him to bring on board Israel Beiteinu, which opposes unilateral withdrawals. Bush, in turn, suffered a political blow last week in the midterm elections, when the Democrats regained control of both the House of Representatives and the Senate for the first time in 12 years. None of this, however, stopped Olmert from making bold statements about reviving the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process as he headed out the door. "One thing I can promise: Under no circumstances am I going to withdraw from the need to engage in a serious dialogue with the Palestinians," he said in the interview. He reconfirmed his commitment both to Bush's road map and to a two-state solution. "We have to find the best partner to do it. A lot depends on the Palestinians," he said. A partner for negotiations might be found if the negotiations between Fatah and Hamas lead to a unity government of technocrats that halts terror, recognizes Israel and agrees to abide by all past diplomatic agreements, Olmert said. Once that happens, he said, "I'll be ready to sit down with such a government even if it includes Hamas representatives." The peace process could also receive boosts from moderate Arab nations such as Jordan and Egypt who have shared interests with Israel, Olmert said. He added that the king of Saudi Arabia and the leaders of the United Arab Emirates have also impressed him. "One can feel that there is a broader examination of the region and also maybe a better understanding of some of the constraints Israel has to deal with." He said he felt the efforts of these countries together with Israel and America could reach out to the moderate elements within Palestinian society. Specifically, Olmert said that he was already willing to meet with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and would be willing to release many prisoners to him in exchange for the release of the kidnapped Cpl. Gilad Shalit. "Hamas's extreme inflexible attitude prevents the prisoners from being released because they refuse to let us have our soldier [Shalit]... Hamas is not really interested in the well-being of its prisoners. They want to topple Abu Mazen at any cost," he said. In the interview, Olmert said that if Syrian President Bashar Assad ended his support for terrorism and Hizbullah, the prime minister would be willing to talk to him. "Assad doesn't show any sign that he is ready to do this," said Olmert. "I don't expect my enemies to be wonderful guys. But I want them to come with clean hands when they come to negotiate. Bashar Assad doesn't come with clean hands. When he comes with clean hands, I will talk to him." Also in the interview, Olmert took issue with the claim that last summer's war with Hizbullah had weakened Israel. "I think Israel had a strategic, military and political success. Unfortunately, before the war, we lacked what we thought we had - deterrence. They were not afraid of starting a fight with us because they thought our reaction would be entirely different. Now if you ask [Hizbullah leader Hassan] Nasrallah if he would want to repeat it, I'm sure his answer would be definitely not," Olmert said. He added, "I know for sure through different sources that Hizbullah was close to total surrender." The two leaders are also expected to discuss the war in Lebanon, the implementation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701, humanitarian assistance to the Palestinians, including improving the flow of goods through the Gaza crossings, and Israel's military operations in Gaza. While the US vetoed a United Nations resolution on Saturday that would have demanded that the IDF withdraw from Gaza, Bush is expected to ask Israel to minimize its operations there.