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Israeli, Palestinian leaders agree to talk

RAMALLAH, West Bank -- Prodded by Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain, the Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, and the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, said yesterday that they are ready to resume contacts without conditions -- a small step that many people hope could lead to resuming peace talks.

Blair also tried to draw Hamas, the governing Palestinian organization, into peace efforts, but the group rejected his condition that it first renounce violence and recognize Israel.

Despite Hamas's tough stance, the readiness of Olmert and Abbas to meet was the first sign of movement in peacemaking in months.

``For the past months, the situation has gone backwards and not forwards," Blair said at a news conference.

But now, he added, ``there is a window of opportunity, even if it does seem very bleak."

Standing alongside the British leader, Abbas said he was prepared to sit down with Olmert.

``We are ready immediately for serious negotiations to end the conflict," Abbas said. ``I am ready to meet Prime Minister Ehud Olmert without conditions."

Israel's government said Olmert would work to bring about such a meeting soon.

The reports amounted to an upbeat note after weeks of conflict between Israel and the Palestinians as well as the Jewish state's 34-day war with Hezbollah in Lebanon.

It also provided a boost for Blair, whose woes at home -- including harsh criticism of his Middle East policies and alliance with Washington -- forced him to announce plans last week to step down as prime minister. Olmert and Abbas were on the verge of holding their first working meeting in June when Palestinian militants tunneled into Israel from the Gaza Strip and captured an Israeli soldier. That derailed the meeting and sparked an Israeli offensive in Gaza.

In another development yesterday, Palestinians said a teenager was killed and another was wounded when an Israeli tank fired a shell in Gaza. Israel said soldiers had fired at Palestinians suspected of planting a bomb.

After Israel and Hezbollah commenced a cease-fire Aug. 14, hopes for dialogue with the Palestinians seemed even dimmer.

Olmert insisted that there could be no talks before the release of the captive soldier. Abbas demanded an Israeli commitment to release Palestinian prisoners.

But in talks with Blair on Saturday, Olmert dropped his demands and declared that he was ready to sit down with the Palestinian leader, without conditions.

Olmert had begun calling publicly for talks with Abbas last week, after shelving plans for a large-scale pullback from large parts of the West Bank. But Israeli and Palestinian officials said Blair's efforts were helpful in bringing them together.

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