JERUSALEM – Israel's defense minister said Monday he had ordered the military to dismantle dozens of the West Bank checkpoints that have disrupted Palestinian travel, as part of a package of gestures Israel hopes will boost Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Defense Minister Amir Peretz also told parliament's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that he supports the release of some of the thousands of Palestinian prisoners Israel holds, even without a deal on freeing an Israeli soldier held by Palestinian militants.
Olmert had previously rejected any prisoner release until Shalit returns home. But since meeting Abbas on Saturday night, Olmert has softened his position.
Israel hopes a prisoner release, as well as easing travel restrictions, would convince the Palestinian public that Abbas is able to deliver them benefits that his militantly anti-Israel Hamas rivals, who control the Palestinian parliament and Cabinet, cannot.
At Saturday's meeting, the first between Israeli and Palestinian leaders in 18 months, Olmert offered to dismantle checkpoints and give Abbas tens of millions of dollars in frozen funds.
The checkpoints have carved up the West Bank into separate blocs, making travel more and more difficult and constraining the local economy.
Lawmakers who attended the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee meeting said Peretz told them 59 checkpoints would come down in two stages.
"We must consider easing roadblocks in places where this does not pose a danger," the defense minister said after the meeting.
Peretz gave no timetable for taking down the checkpoints. He has asked the army to decide which checkpoints should be taken down in each of the phases, something that could delay the process because of military opposition to easing travel restrictions.
Palestinians welcomed Peretz's decision. Although hundreds of roadblocks will still remain, "we still consider this a step in lifting the internal closure in the West Bank," said Saeb Erekat, a top Abbas aide.
Maj. Gen. Yair Naveh, Israel's West Bank commander, has warned in recent internal discussions that dismantling checkpoints would make it harder for the military to prevent suicide bombers from attacking Israeli targets, security officials said.
Speaking to reporters at parliament, Peretz said that freeing Palestinians might improve prospects for the Shalit's release.
"Every year there has been a humanitarian release of prisoners" around the Christmas and (Muslim) Eid al-Adha holidays, and the government should carry out a similar goodwill gesture this year, he said.
A spokesman for one of the three Hamas-allied groups that captured Shalit said Egyptian-brokered talks on a prisoner swap had reached an impasse.
"There are no developments in the prisoner exchange talks. I can go so far as to say talks have reached a deadlock," said Abu Mujahed of the Popular Resistance Committees.
Shortly after Shalit was captured, Israel rounded up dozens of Hamas lawmakers and Cabinet members in what was widely viewed as an attempt to collect bargaining chips for the soldier's release.
On Monday, Israel's Supreme Court began deliberating a petition by four of the arrested lawmakers against Israel's decision to revoke their Jerusalem residency.
Israel meted out the unprecedented punishment after the officials refused to renounce their membership in Hamas. Lawyers said they expected the court proceedings to take months.
Also Monday, Olmert said he would like to renew peace talks with Syria, but insisted that Damascus first end its support of anti-Israel militant groups.
Syria has recently indicated it would like to resume negotiations with Israel. Olmert has rejected the offers.
"If Syria agrees to stop the violence, stop its support for Hamas, stop its support for Hezbollah, and sever its appalling connection with Iran, then we'll be able to engage in a diplomatic process," Olmert told a meeting of lawmakers from his Kadima party.