Olmert shelves West Bank pullout

OCCUPIED JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert backed away Monday from the unilateral West Bank pullback plan that swept him to power in March, saying that Israel needs to pursue talks with the Palestinians.

There have been no official contacts between Israel and the Palestinians since the Hamas group, which is sworn to Israel’s destruction, won Palestinian parliamentary elections in January. With Israel’s recent war against Lebanese fighters putting a chill on Olmert’s signature programme — to uproot Jewish settlements and unilaterally draw Israel’s border with the West Bank — the Israeli leader again broached the idea of talks.

“We have no more urgent problem than that of the Palestinians,” Olmert told parliament’s influential foreign affairs and defence committee, a meeting participant said.

Government spokeswoman Miri Eisin said Israel had no preconditions for a meeting between Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of the rival Fateh Party, who favours peace talks with the Israelis.

In the past, Abbas has conditioned such talks on a large-scale release of some of the thousands of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. Israel says it won’t release prisoners until fighters linked to Hamas release Cpl. Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier they captured in a June 25 raid.

Lawmaker Saeb Erekat, an Abbas ally, said the president, known as Abu Mazen, was prepared to talk.

“If Mr Olmert says there are no conditions for a meeting, he knows that Abu Mazen stands ready for such a meeting,” Erekat said.

Israel has demanded Shalit’s unconditional release, though there have been reports of a nascent deal to trade Palestinian prisoners for the soldier.

Olmert, speaking before the parliamentary panel, denied knowledge of an impending prisoner swap.

“As long as Gilad Shalit is not freed, I will not deal with a prisoner release. We have no intention of doing so under the pressure of a kidnapping,” Olmert said, according to a meeting participant, who declined to be named because he was not authorised to speak to the media.

An Egyptian diplomat familiar with the negotiations said a deal was unlikely in the coming days because Israel and the Palestinians have not agreed on the number or names of prisoners to be released.

Earlier this year, under international pressure, Israel made overtures to meet with Abbas, even though it was sceptical of his ability to deliver a peace deal. Those efforts broke down after Shalit’s capture, and Israel launched an ongoing offensive against fighters in Gaza that has killed more than 200 Palestinians, most of them fighters.

In Paris, French President Jacques Chirac urged a new meeting of the so-called “Quartet” of Mideast mediators, which formulated the long-stalled “roadmap” peace plan.

Chirac gave no date for a possible meeting of the Quartet, made up of the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations, spokesman Jerome Bonnafont said.

Olmert’s Kadima Party came to power on a platform of large-scale Israeli pullbacks in the West Bank, but Olmert shelved that plan after the war against Hizbollah fighters in Lebanon, leaving the future of Jewish settlements in the West Bank up in the air.

Asked where the pullback plan was going, Olmert told the foreign affairs and defense committee, “What I advocated several months ago has changed,” according to the meeting participant.

On Monday, Olmert’s government issued bids to build 700 homes in major settlements in the West Bank — its largest settlement construction project since taking office in May.

The Palestinians claim all of the West Bank, which Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war, as part of a future state. Erekat said the planned expansion of Maaleh Adumim and Betar Illit undermined efforts to revive peacemaking.

Olmert’s appearance before the committee was his first since the Lebanon war ended three weeks ago, and he used the occasion to deliver a harsh warning to Syria, a patron of Hizbollah and Palestinian fighters. If forced into war with Syria, Israel will strike more harshly than it did in Lebanon, the participant quoted him as saying.

Israel went to great lengths to keep Syria out of the conflict in Lebanon, apparently to avoid opening another front.

Olmert also reiterated his opposition to new talks with Syria, meeting participants said.

More than 850 Lebanese were killed during the fighting, most of them civilians. The battles also left 159 Israelis dead, including 39 civilians hit by Hizbollah rockets in Israel’s northern cities.

Three weeks after a cease-fire ended the war, Israel has a special legal team preparing to provide protection for government officials and army officers who could face related war crimes charges abroad.

There have been unsuccessful efforts in Europe in the past to try Israeli politicians and army officers on war crimes charges over other conflicts.

Amnesty International recently accused Israel of war crimes in the Lebanese war, but Israel has said all of its actions were legal, accusing Hizbollah of hiding among civilians in Lebanon and deliberately targeting Israeli civilians in rocket attacks.

Meanwhile, a Palestinian businessman who serves in the Hamas-led Cabinet retracted his resignation on Monday.

Communications Minister Jamal Khodari, an independent who had Hamas support, resigned Sunday, but Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh met him and told him the Cabinet would reject his resignation.

Khodari said he was stepping down to promote formation of a national unity government, but his intentions were misunderstood, and so he decided to accept Haniyeh’s request to remain in office, he said in a statement on Monday.

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