Israel’s Olmert Says Peace Deal Closer Than Ever
PARIS (AP) – Embattled Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert declared Sunday that Israel and the Palestinians have never been closer to making peace – even as a widening corruption probe brings him closer than ever to being ousted from office.
To help build confidence between the two sides, Olmert agreed in a one-on-one meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to release an unspecified number of Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails, an Israeli official said.
Abbas, who met with Olmert at the French presidential palace ahead of a summit of European, Middle Eastern and African leaders, also sounded a positive note about the troubled peace talks, saying both sides were "serious and want to achieve peace."
The two men met with French President Nicolas Sarkozy before sitting down together one-on-one.
"We have never been as close to a possible (peace) agreement as we are today," Olmert told reporters before the three leaders entered their meeting.
Repeated rounds of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks since a peace conference in Annapolis, Md., last year have produced little change on the ground.
Israel has continued its contentious construction of homes on lands the Palestinians want for a future state, and has done little to scale back a network of roadblocks in the West Bank that hinder Palestinian movement and have severely handicapped prospects for the Palestinian economy.
Israel, meanwhile, says Abbas hasn’t done enough to curb militants bent on attacking Israel, and the Palestinian president remains powerless against Hamas militants who wrested control of the Gaza Strip last year. Abbas rules only the West Bank, but Israel says no peace deal could be implemented as long as Hamas holds sway in Gaza.
Meanwhile, Syria’s president sat out the Israeli prime minister’s speech to a Paris summit Sunday in an apparent rebuff just hours after Ehud Olmert urged Damascus to open direct peace talks, Israeli officials said.
Syrian leader Bashar Assad also did not shake hands with Olmert at a meeting of more than 40 European, African and Middle Eastern states in the French capital to launch a new Mediterranean union aimed at closer cooperation in the region.
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