JERUSALEM, (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said he could meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas before a captive Israeli soldier in Gaza was freed and release Palestinian prisoners to the moderate leader at some stage.
Some Israeli politicians including members of Olmert’s cabinet have urged the prime minister to shun Abbas until militants freed Corporal Gilad Shalit, who was snatched by gunmen in a cross-border raid from Gaza on June 25.
“Since I know he (Abbas) is making efforts to bring about the soldier’s release, I sent messages recently that I am ready to meet with him even before Shalit is freed,” Olmert told the Yedioth Ahronoth daily in an interview published on Friday. He gave no date for the meeting which the international community hopes could help revive peace talks.
Peace hopes dimmed when the Islamist group Hamas, which is sworn to Israel’s destruction, took power in March after beating Abbas’s long-dominant Fatah movement in January elections.
The three militant factions that seized Shalit, including Hamas members, have demanded Israel release Palestinian prisoners in exchange for the soldier’s freedom.
Israel has said there would be no deal with the abductors and launched a major offensive against militants in the wake of Shalit’s seizure. The offensive has killed nearly 220 Palestinians, about half of them civilians.
The government of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has spearheaded moves to try and broker a deal.
“Before the kidnapping I promised Mubarak that when I meet with Abu Mazen I would release prisoners. This is the model that we have been speaking about,” Olmert said, using Abbas’s nickname and referring to a previous, expected prisoner release.
“There are difficulties in this issue. I cannot elaborate.” Yedioth said Olmert did not rule out releasing prisoners held in Israeli jails to Abbas with “blood on their hands”, but the newspaper did not provide a direct quote from Olmert.
This would mark a departure from Israel’s previous stance on the issue. Around 10,000 Palestinians are held in Israeli jails.
Olmert said Israel would not meet or negotiate with Hamas.
“I said to Mubarak, I am ready to release (prisoners) to Abu Mazen. I am not ready to release prisoners to Hamas,” Olmert said. “The moment I recognise Hamas as an official source, I would put an end to the position of Abu Mazen and moderates in the Palestinian Authority.”
Abbas and Hamas have been trying to reach agreement on a unity government. Palestinians hope the coalition will lead to the lifting of Western sanctions imposed on the Hamas government since March.