Embattled Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert declared Sunday that Israel and the Palestinians have never been closer to making peace — even as a widening corruption probe brings him closer than ever to being ousted from office.
To help build confidence between the two sides, Olmert agreed in a one-on-one meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to release an unspecified number of Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails, an Israeli official said.
Abbas, who met with Olmert at the French presidential palace ahead of a summit of European, Middle Eastern and African leaders, also sounded a positive note about the troubled peace talks, saying both sides were "serious and want to achieve peace."
The two men met with French President Nicolas Sarkozy before sitting down together one-on-one.
"We have never been as close to a possible (peace) agreement as we are today," Olmert told reporters before the three leaders entered their meeting.
Repeated rounds of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks since a peace conference in Annapolis, Md., last year have produced little change on the ground.
Israel has continued its contentious construction of homes on lands the Palestinians want for a future state, and has done little to scale back a network of roadblocks in the West Bank that hinder Palestinian movement and have severely handicapped prospects for the Palestinian economy.
Israel, meanwhile, says Abbas hasn't done enough to curb militants bent on attacking Israel, and the Palestinian president remains powerless against Hamas militants who wrested control of the Gaza Strip last year. Abbas rules only the West Bank, but Israel says no peace deal could be implemented as long as Hamas holds sway in Gaza.
Despite the troubles on both sides, the atmosphere was friendly when Olmert and Abbas posed on the steps of the Elysee Palace with Sarkozy in the center. Olmert and Abbas each rested an arm on the other's back.
After the meeting, Olmert spokesman Mark Regev said Israel was committed to "try to reach a historic agreement by the end of this year." Such an agreement, he said, "would outline what a two-state solution would look like."
That's a far less ambitious aim than the original objective set at the U.S.-hosted conference of reaching a detailed final deal by December.
As a "gesture" to Abbas, Olmert "agreed in principle" to release some of the thousands of Palestinian prisoners it holds, Regev said.
Because many Palestinian families have members in Israeli jails, prisoner releases are of paramount importance to the Palestinian people. Previous releases designed to bolster Abbas' standing among the Palestinian people haven't satisfied the Palestinians, because they have numbered in the dozens or hundreds.
Regev had no details on how many prisoners would be released or when, adding only that these prisoners would be separate from any freed as part of any prisoner swap for captured Israelis.
Israel plans on Wednesday to free five Lebanese prisoners in exchange for two soldiers captured by Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas in 2006. The soldiers are believed to have been killed during or shortly after their capture, which touched off a monthlong war between Israel and Hezbollah.
In addition, Gaza's Hamas rulers have demanded the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Gilad Schalit, an Israeli sergeant with French citizenship whose release Sarkozy has urged.
Talks on Schalit's release are to be stepped up as part of a rocky truce Israel reached with Gaza militants last month.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat confirmed that Olmert promised to review Abbas' request for a prisoner release "very positively." He said the meeting — one of a series of get-togethers the two leaders hold every few weeks — was conducted in a "good atmosphere."
Asked to comment on Olmert's observation that the two sides were closer than ever to clinching a deal, Erekat replied, "We are having serious, in-depth negotiations on all issues."
The main issues that have tormented peace talks for years have been the final borders between Israel and a future Palestinian state, the status of disputed Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinians who fled or were expelled from their homes in the Arab war on Israel that followed the Jewish state's creation in 1948.
Erekat said peace talks weren't affected by Olmert's domestic troubles. On Friday, police announced that a corruption probe of Olmert had branched out into a new direction, and that the prime minister was suspected of billing multiple sources for identical trips, and pocketing the difference.
In May, Olmert saw his political fortunes plunge when a Jewish-American businessman testified in a Jerusalem court that he gave the Israeli leader hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash before he became prime minister in 2006 — testimony that has raised suspicions of influence peddling. Some of the money, businessman Morris Talansky claimed, bankrolled Olmert's lavish tastes in cigars, pens and travel.
Olmert's lawyers are to cross-examine Talansky this week, but Israeli political commentators have predicted that Olmert will not be able to survive the latest allegations against him.
Olmert has denied wrongdoing and promised to resign if indicted, but in the meantime, rivals in his governing Kadima Party are working on holding primaries in September to replace him as party leader.
Under Israel's political system, the leader of the governing party usually serves as prime minister.