Olmert says hopes to meet Abbas, but rules out releasing prisoners

news32.jpgOCCUPIED JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Thursday that he hopes to hold a long-delayed meeting with Mahmoud Abbas in the coming days, but ruled out releasing prisoners or offering other goodwill gestures to the Palestinian president until a captured Israeli soldier is freed.

In lengthy interviews with the two main local radio stations, the embattled Israeli leader defended his government’s decision to wage war against Hizbollah fighters, ruled out peace talks with Syria and expressed hope for new peace moves with the Palestinians.

Relations between Israel and the Palestinians deteriorated after the Islamic Hamas won Palestinian parliamentary elections in January and formed a Cabinet.

Previous plans for a summit between Olmert and Abbas — a moderate from the Fateh Party — were frozen after Hamas-linked fighters attacked an Israeli army post on June 25, killing two soldiers, capturing a third and sparking a large-scale Israeli offensive in Gaza.

Abbas has been trying to pressure Hamas to moderate its views, but efforts to form a national unity government — which could lead to new peace talks — have stalled.

Asked in an interview with Israel Radio when a summit with Abbas was likely, Olmert said: “I hope in the coming days, I hope. I, in any case, asked him. I told him that I would be happy to meet with him.” Abbas aides said he was not interested in a meeting with Olmert without assurances it would deal with more than the fate of Cpl. Gilad Shalit, the captured soldier.

Palestinian lawmaker Saeb Erekat, an Abbas confidant and key negotiator, said there were no preparations for a summit. “I think President Abbas said he is willing to meet Mr. Olmert. I hope we can prepare a meeting very well.

Such meetings need preparation,” he said.

The fighters have said they would not free Shalit unless Israel releases hundreds of jailed Palestinians. Olmert, who has repeatedly rejected that demand, said he would not free prisoners, even as a goodwill gesture to Abbas, before Shalit’s release.

“I am not making gestures,” Olmert told Israel Radio.

“Until Gilad Shalit is freed, I will not deal with freeing Palestinian prisoners.” Nevertheless, Olmert said he hoped a summit would lead to broader peace talks.

Peace moves have been frozen for years, with both sides refusing to carry out their initial obligations under the internationally backed roadmap peace plan.

If no peace deal can be worked out, Olmert said in the interviews broadcast Thursday that he would carry out his plan to unilaterally withdraw from most of the West Bank while strengthening Israel’s hold over large settlement blocs. However, Olmert’s aides have said he abandoned the plan following his plunge in popularity after the war in Lebanon, which killed more than 150 Israelis and more than 850 Lebanese.

Recent polls showed that less than a quarter of Israelis were happy with Olmert’s job performance, while nearly 70 per cent disapproved of his actions as prime minister.

“I do not rule out that the sources that activated Hizbollah from the beginning, the Iranians and to some degree the Syrians, will make every effort to activate them in the future, and it could be that as a result we can expect tests,” Olmert said. “But, in my opinion, the chance that Hizbollah will be dragged into a broad military conflict of the type that we had is very small. The reality has changed and Hizbollah knows this well.” The war also created new momentum in relations between Israel and moderate Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, he said.

Olmert was evasive when asked about Israeli media reports that he had met secretly in recent days with a senior Saudi official in Jordan. “I think all the speculation on this issue is superfluous,” he told army radio.

Saudi Arabia’s foreign ministry has denied there was such a meeting.

Olmert expressed appreciation for the Saudi government’s restraint in criticising Israel’s fight with Hizbollah.

“During the war, we fought against Muslims, and Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Abu Dhabi and other governments, including Indonesia, talked — in the context of this war — against the Muslims and not against us,” he said.

Olmert also rejected a Syrian overture to open peace talks, accusing Syrian President Bashar Assad of harbouring terrorists, including Hamas’ top leaders, who are suspected of orchestrating Shalit’s capture.

“It [Syria] was and remains the main supporter of the Palestinian terror groups who daily try to carry out terrorism against the state of Israel. In my opinion, this is not a foundation on which it is possible to hold peace negotiations,” Olmert said.

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