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Israel's Prime Minister Open to New Peace Talks

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Israel's Prime Minister Open to New Peace Talks

Middle East

Israel's Prime Minister Open to New Peace Talks

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Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert delivered a major speech today. Speaking at the grave of Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, Olmert said the Palestinians are at a major crossroads. He urged resumption of the long-stalled peace talks. He also said that if Palestinian militants free a captured Israeli soldier, Israel will release, quote, "many Palestinian prisoners."

NPR'S Linda Gradstein joins us now from Israel.

This speech does sound significant. How far reaching is it, really?

LINDA GRADSTEIN: Well, it's pretty far-reaching, given the fact that Olmert seems to be taking a very conciliatory tone toward the Palestinians. He said that he was holding - Israel was holding out its hand in peace and he hopes the Palestinians would take it. He promised that Israel would ease West Bank checkpoints and release money that Israel has frozen if the Palestinians pursue peace efforts.

At the same time, he said a condition of all of this is that the Palestinian government recognize Israel and renounce violence. So it's a little bit early to say whether this is really going to be the resumption of the long-stalled peace process, but certainly his tone was conciliatory and it came across as at least an effort to do that.

MONTAGNE: And what about what sounds like a prisoner exchange? Is that, in fact, more likely?

GRADSTEIN: Well, the negotiations have been going on for months now. In fact, almost since Gilad Shalit was captured on the Gaza-Israeli border five months ago. And there have been repeated sort of things that it was about to happen. It was very close.

However, what's new in Olmert's speech today is that he talked about releasing prisoners who have served lengthy prison terms. That's always been a Palestinian demand, that it not be just sort of criminals and people who had gotten short prison terms. The Egyptians had been trying to negotiate something and something does seem to be moving.

MONTAGNE: And what about the prime minister's offer to withdraw from what he called large areas of the West Bank? How new is that offer?

GRADSTEIN: Well, that's the platform that Olmert was actually elected on, what he called his convergence plan in which Israel would annex settlement blocks, in other words large areas of settlements that are relatively close to the pre-1967 border and withdraw from the rest of the West Bank.

After the war in Lebanon this summer, he had said that that plan was put on hold. Now he seems to be going back to it.

However, again, there were conditions. He conditioned this on something the Palestinians are unlikely to agree on, namely giving up the right of return for Palestinians refugees to return to their homes in Israel. Palestinians also say that they would not accept any Israeli annexation of any part of the West Bank and there must be a complete Israeli withdrawal.

MONTAGNE: So there's some big issues, and of course Ehud Olmert's popularity is pretty low right now.

GRADSTEIN: That's true. His popularity is at all-time low. At the same time, the polls show that the Israeli public does want a peace deal with the Palestinians. The ceasefire that was announced yesterday in Gaza seems to be holding. It's possible that it will be extended to the West Bank. And the Israeli public wants some sort of a peace deal with the Palestinians and certainly wants to return to negotiations.

MONTAGNE: Linda, thanks very much.

GRADSTEIN: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Linda Gradstein speaking from Jerusalem.

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