Thu, Jun 07, 2007 - Page 6 News List

Olmert, Haniyeh face off in `Guardian' op-ed duel

AP , JERUSALEM

In dueling op-ed pieces yesterday, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Israel was ready to discuss a sweeping Arab peace proposal as long as it wasn't presented as a take-it-or-leave-it plan, while Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh said the "catastrophic climate" in the region could not be changed unless the West engaged with his government.

The Arab peace deal, first proposed in 2002 and recently revived, offered Israel full recognition in exchange for a withdrawal from all territories it occupied in the 1967 Middle East war and a "just solution" for Palestinian refugees.

Israel has not rejected the idea but expressed reservations about a complete withdrawal and opposes resettling Palestinian refugees in Israel.

"I take the offer of full normalization of relations between Israel and the Arab world seriously and I am ready to discuss the Arab peace initiative in an open and sincere manner," Olmert said in his piece in the British newspaper the Guardian, on the 40th anniversary of the war.

"But the talks must be a discussion, not an ultimatum," he said.

In his piece in the British newspaper, Haniyeh said Israel's fateful error was to "underestimate the resolve of the Palestinians" to fight the Israeli occupation.

"The first step to change this catastrophic climate is for the West to engage with the Palestinian National Unity government," Haniyeh said.

The Palestinian government is ruled by a coalition of Haniyeh's Islamic militant group and the Fatah movement of the more moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

The rival movements formed the alliance in March in hope of ending international sanctions imposed on the previous Hamas-only government after the Islamic group swept parliamentary elections last year.

However, the West has not lifted the sanctions and in most cases has maintained contacts only with Fatah and independent members of the new government. Western countries have demanded Hamas renounce violence and recognize Israel's right to exist -- demands it refuses to accept.

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