Israel is prepared to withdraw troops from Palestinian areas well ahead of a planned pullout from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank next summer, Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said.
Mofaz also told an academic conference in this seaside town that he favors coordinating the Gaza pullout with the Palestinians, a marked departure from initial plans to carry out the plan unilaterally.
In an initial test, he said Israel would withdraw from Palestinian areas for 72 hours next month to facilitate Palestinian presidential elections.
Mofaz's comments on Monday signaled that a deadly attack on an Israeli army post in Gaza isn't immediately threatening fledgling peace efforts. However, Israeli leaders made clear that diplomatic progress would depend on the new Palestinian leadership's willingness to confront militant groups.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon refused to negotiate with late Palestinian president Yasser Arafat, accusing him of fomenting violence.
But since Arafat's death last month, Israel has tacitly welcomed the moderate interim Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas. Israel is keeping its distance from Abbas ahead of the Jan. 9 presidential election, not wanting to hurt his chances.
Sunday's bombing in Gaza, which killed five Israeli soldiers and wounded five others, was seen as a challenge to Abbas, who has been trying to persuade militants to halt attacks on Israelis in the run-up to the vote. The Islamic militant group Hamas and gunmen with ties to the ruling Fatah movement claimed responsibility.
Israeli leaders said on Monday that the new Palestinian leadership was not doing enough to restrain militants.
"By now, we don't see any change," Sharon said in a veiled criticism of Abbas.
Still, Israel's initial response to the outpost attack was relatively muted. Helicopters fired five missiles at suspected weapons workshops in Gaza City, causing no injuries.
The Palestinian election is emerging as an important test for both sides. Israel has promised to let the vote proceed smoothly, while Abbas, who is the front-runner, is seeking a halt in violence in hopes of clearing the way for a resumption of peace talks.
Israel has said it would do its utmost to facilitate the vote, but Mofaz's comments were the most detailed yet on troop redeployment. He said Israeli troops would withdraw from Palestinian towns a day before the Jan. 9 vote, and stay out for 72 hours.
If the Palestinians crack down on militants, Mofaz said, Israel is ready to coordinate the Gaza pullout and make even broader concessions.
"Implementation of a program of agreed disengagement could certainly be a platform for a future interim agreement," he said, adding that he believes conditions are not yet ripe for a permanent settlement.
In the meantime, Mofaz held out the possibility of a wide Israeli pullback from Palestinian areas well ahead of the Gaza withdrawal. He said Israel is prepared to turn over security responsibility for Palestinian areas in Gaza and the West Bank.
Palestinian officials reacted coolly, saying Israeli troops should leave Palestinian areas immediately to allow candidates to campaign and rejecting the notion of an interim peace deal.
"We have signed lots of interim agreements, and all of these agreements failed," said Hassan Abu Libdeh, the Palestinian Cabinet secretary. He called for a resumption of peace talks based on the internationally backed "road map."