Olmert tours wall, eyes modest goals

JERUSALEM -- A day after agreeing with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on a way to move toward peace with the Palestinians, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert toured along the West Bank separation barrier yesterday.

His talking points demonstrated the gap of expectations Rice will face when she returns to the region next month for three-way talks with Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.


The concrete barrier is reviled by Palestinians as a unilateral attempt by Israel to define its border with a future Palestinian state.

Speaking at the wall's Ephraim Crossing, Olmert ignored that explosive issue. Instead, he pressed Israeli inspectors to speed up scanning procedures so more cargo trucks could enter Israel from the West Bank.


"There is a large population whose quality of life will decide what kind of neighbors they will be," the prime minister said.

During Rice's visit to Israel and the West Bank, Abbas had asked her to arrange the three-way meeting so he could start talking to Olmert about the core issues of a final settlement. These include the delineation of a new Palestinian state, the status of Jerusalem, and the claims of Palestinian refugees to return to homes they abandoned in 1948 in what is now Israel.

In agreeing to Rice's proposal, Olmert made it clear he had a more modest agenda. His aides said he would approach the encounter as part of a "pre-negotiation stage" in which the two sides might build trust through initial steps, such as Israel's easing of cargo restrictions, a halt to Palestinian rocket attacks, and an exchange of prisoners.

"We're still at the early stages of building the confidence necessary to open peace negotiations," said Miri Eisen, the prime minister's spokeswoman. "We're not there yet, and we're not going to be cutting corners."

Small deals between the two men have come to naught, including Olmert's December pledge to release $100 million in frozen funds to the Palestinian Authority and Abbas' November commitment to prevent militant groups from firing rockets from the Gaza Strip.

Abbas "most likely will not accept another round of confidence-building with Olmert unless there are tangible results," one of the Palestinian leader's aides said yesterday. "He wants to go beyond minor issues and sign an accord, along with the Israelis and the Americans, laying out a timetable for creating an independent Palestinian state."

Also yesterday, Israeli army commander Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, under fire for failures in last summer's war in Lebanon, has resigned, the Defense Ministry said early today.

Halutz has been under pressure to step down since the end of the 34-day war, which failed in its goals of defeating the anti-Israel militant group Hezbollah and bringing home two captured soldiers.


Israeli launched a full-scale attack on Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas after they seized the two men and killed three other soldiers in a cross-border raid July 12.

Army Radio reported that Halutz sent his letter of resignation to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, saying that he was taking responsibility for the outcome of the war.

Richard Boudreaux writes for the Los Angeles Times. The Associated Press contributed to this article.