Prime Minister Ehud Olmert hailed a peace drive by Arab states as a "revolutionary change" but repeated Israel's opposition to any return of Palestinian refugees in newspaper interviews published Friday.
While the U.S. and moderate Arab countries are pushing to re-energize long-stalled efforts at peacemaking, Olmert seemed disinclined to immediately working on the thorniest issues dividing Israel and the Palestinians, such as final borders, the status of Jerusalem and the refugee question.
He spoke of the possibility of a comprehensive peace in the region "within five years" and said there would be no shortcut to a final deal.
Olmert told the Haaretz daily that the 2002 peace plan revived at the Arab League summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, this week showed that many Arab states realized they "may have been wrong to think that Israel is the world's greatest problem." This marked a "revolutionary change in outlook," Olmert said in the Haaretz interview, one of several he gave ahead of the Passover holiday, which begins next week.
The Arab plan, spearheaded by Saudi Arabia, calls for full recognition of Israel by the Arab world in return for an Israeli withdrawal from territories captured in the 1967 Mideast war and a "just solution" for Palestinian refugees who fled or were driven from homes inside Israel during the war following Israel's creation in 1948.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who is to conduct negotiations with Israel on behalf of the Palestinians, welcomed the proposal. But Hamas, the Islamist group that governs alongside Abbas' Fatah movement, ruled out any possibility of recognizing Israel or compromising on a full refugee return.
Israel rejects a full withdrawal, hoping to hang on to several settlement blocs in the West Bank. It has also ruled out any refugee return, because an influx of refugees and their millions of descendants would mean the end of Israel as a Jewish state.
In another interview published Friday in the English-language The Jerusalem Post, Olmert reiterated this opposition, calling a refugee return "out of the question."
"I'll never accept a solution that is based on their return to Israel, any number," Olmert said.
In an interview with the daily Maariv, Olmert said he didn't accept the Saudi initiative in its entirety, but saw it as "showing a positive approach."
"The Saudi initiative is not a detailed plan. It's what's called a 'state of mind,"' Olmert said.
Any final peace deal would involve painful concessions on Israel's part, Olmert has acknowledged in the past. But surveys show the Israeli public to be widely disenchanted with him following last summer's inconclusive war against Lebanese guerrillas, and that could encumber any bold moves he might want to take, such as dismantling West Bank settlements. In the weekend interviews, he did not portray Israel and the Arab world galloping toward a final accord.
Olmert told the daily Yediot Ahronot that there is "a real chance that within five years Israel will be able to reach a comprehensive peace deal with its enemies."
"Things are happening that haven't happened in the past, and they're ripening. We have to know how to take advantage of this opportunity," Olmert told the paper.
In the Haaretz interview, Olmert said he told U.S. officials that "there is no point in a bypass route, and that we have to confront the Palestinians and oblige them to fulfill commitments."
Under the first phase of the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan, Palestinian militant groups were to disarm and Israel was to halt West Bank settlement expansion. Neither side fulfilled its obligations, and the plan stalled shortly after it was introduced nearly four years ago, though it was never officially abandoned.
The second phase of the three-phase plan called for an interim Palestinian state within provisional borders. The last stage was to see the creation of a Palestinian state with permanent borders.
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