PM Olmert Apologizes, Promises Concessions

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert apologized for an errant artillery shell and promised PLO chief Mahmoud Abbas he would "go far” in negotiations. Fatah officials issued open calls for terror attacks.

Ezra HaLevi , | updated: 7:38 PM

"He will be surprised when he sits with me at how far we are prepared to go,” Olmert said Thursday evening. “I can offer him a lot."

Olmert said he is willing to meet Abbas (Abu Mazen) “at any time, with no predetermined conditions,” an apparent break with previous requirements outlined in the US-backed Road Map, such as a cessation of terrorist attacks. He said that so far it was Abbas who has refused to meet with him.

Olmert said he was prepared to release a large number of terrorists in talks with Abbas, saying he intended to release them even before IDF Corporal Gilad Shilat was kidnapped. "Even before Shalit's abduction, I met [Hashemite King of Jordan] Abdullah, [Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak, and [British Prime Minister Tony] Blair and told them that I am ready to release prisoners. I tell the Palestinians today – you don't know how many prisoners you can have if you were to release Shalit. I am ready to release them for Abu Mazen but not for Hamas."

Abbas, whose Fatah group is favored by the international community over the Islamist Hamas movement, saw his group swept out of power in Palestinian Authority elections earlier this year. Hamas runs the government, but the PA Chairman continues to be Abbas. The Al Aksa Brigades terrorist group, which operates under Fatah, has continued to carry out attacks throughout Abbas’s term as PA chairman.

Senior Fatah officials themselves openly called for terror attacks on Israeli civilians following the pre-dawn incident Wednesday morning in the Northern Gaza town of Beit Hanoun, in which the artillery shell strayed 500 meters off course, killing 19 and wounding 29 others. Just hours before Olmert’s statement, Fatah official Abdul Hakim Awad declared in Gaza: "The Zionist enemy understands only the language of force and therefore I say, an eye for an eye and a soul for a soul. There will be no security in Ashkelon, no security in Tel Aviv or Haifa, until our people in Beit Hanoun are secured."

Olmert apologized for the accident while addressing the Prime Minister’s Conference for Export and International Cooperation on Thursday. "I express my great remorse for yesterday's accident in Beit Hanun, the IDF's mistaken firing,” Olmert said. “We regret what happened. But, unfortunately that's what happened. But [a similar tragedy] could have happened from Kassam fire at Sderot and Ashkelon. These are missiles fired deliberately at Israel. What we need to do is to curb the firing of these missiles. But I believe Israel is strong enough to apologize.”

The prime minister said that the IDF gunners who fired the artillery were aiming at a nearby orange grove used by terrorists to fire rockets on Sderot. “This was a mistake and was not a planned attack. It was a technical failure of the Israeli artillery. I checked it, and I verified it."

Olmert did say that Israel would continue to operate in Gaza as long as rockets continue to be fired on Israeli towns. This, under a new regulation requiring approval by the District Commander for all artillery fire.

Olmert insisted that the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza last year was not a mistake. "I am still proud to say that I was among the initiators of the Disengagement,” he said. “But we disengaged. We left and withdrew from there because I believe that is an important step forward. They cannot say that we are occupying and holding on to parts of Gaza. They have been firing Kassam rockets at us from day one. What more can we do to convince them to sit with us for negotiations and stop firing and firing and firing?"

The prime minister finished his talk by explaining that Israel’s victory in the summer’s war was that United Nations Security Council resolution 1559 of 2004 is now being implemented, with the deployment of the Lebanese Army to remove Hizbullah terrorists from their positions.

"Hizbullah lost the appetite to fight Israel for many years,” Olmert asserted. “You can ask [Hizbullah chief Hassan] Nasrallah. You ask Nasrallah if they want to return to this experience, they would say that they don't want to experience that for many, many, many years. I heard during the war that there is no more deterrence because of this war. Did we have deterrence against Hizbullah before July 12? There was zero deterrence.

"[Nasrallah] said that if he would have known about one percent of our response, he wouldn't have started a war. Today there is deterrence. Therefore I believe we won the war."