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Bush backs Olmert on pullout plan

Leaders express a shared vision on peace process

WASHINGTON -- President Bush and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel said yesterday that talks between Israel and the Palestinians remain the best hope for Middle East peace. But Bush gave conditional support to Olmert's plan to pursue a unilateral separation from the Palestinians if the Hamas-dominated government is unwilling to negotiate a peace agreement.

Bush, after his first meeting with Olmert since the Israeli election in March, urged Hamas to embrace negotiations for a final settlement to establish a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The United States and its European allies, which consider Hamas a terrorist group, have isolated the movement since its election in January and cut off all but humanitarian aid even while maintaining ties with moderate Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas .

``Hamas needs to make a strategic choice for peace," Bush told reporters after the two leaders met for nearly two hours and before sharing a private dinner in the White House residence. ``The United States and the international community have made clear that Hamas must recognize Israel's right to exist, must abandon terror, and must accept all previous agreements between the Palestinian Authority and Israel. No country can be expected to make peace with those who deny its right to exist, and who use terror to attack its population."

The two leaders, meanwhile, also expressed solidarity in their belief that the theocratic government in Iran, which has vowed to annihilate Israel, must not be allowed to obtain nuclear weapons.

Bush said the United States was on the ``cusp" of bringing the matter to the UN Security Council, and he vowed that ``in the event of any attack on Israel, the United States will come to Israel's aid."

Bush also repeated earlier offers to allow Iran to develop nuclear power for civilian energy purposes as the long as the regime of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad agrees to let the international community provide the enriched nuclear fuel and to dispose of the byproduct, to ensure the material is not being used to make nuclear weapons.

Olmert told reporters that ``we reviewed the different ways how to [stop Iran], and I am very satisfied with what I heard from the president and on what we agreed that we will continue to do in order to achieve this goal."

But a primary objective of Olmert -- on his first state visit to Washington since he replaced the ailing Ariel Sharon -- appeared to be to gain a measure of support for his plan to solve the Israeli-Palestinian impasse: dismantling Jewish settlements in parts of the West Bank and annexing several with the largest Jewish populations.

Olmert was elected on a platform to continue what Sharon began with the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip last summer. Olmert said he plans to meet at the earliest opportunity with Abbas, who Bush said ``favors and speaks out for peace and negotiations." But Olmert said Israel cannot wait forever.

``We are anxious to have negotiations," he said. ``We will look and find every possible avenue to help establish a process of negotiations on the basis of these conditions. However, as I said, we will not wait indefinitely."

Olmert said Israel would ``look for other ways to implement these principles, and to ultimately create a situation where there are secured borders for the state of Israel with the population centers in the territories as part of the state of Israel, and with a contiguous territory that will allow the Palestinians to establish their own Palestinian state alongside the state of Israel."

He added: ``And hopefully this is something that will happen within the next three to four years."

Bush, for his part, expressed tacit approval for Olmert's disengagement plan.

``I would call them bold ideas," Bush said of the so-called consolidation proposal, which he said remains a last resort. ``These ideas could lead to a two-state solution if a pathway to progress [with the Palestinians] is not open in the period ahead."

Diane Balser , executive director of Brit Tzedek v'Shalom , the Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace, a pro-peace and pro-Israel grass-roots organization based in Chicago, said she was buoyed by the two leaders' ``recognition that the best solution is a negotiated solution." But she said it sounded like they had little faith that negotiations would work.

Even as one of its top military leaders was captured by Israeli forces in the West Bank yesterday, Hamas leaders made a surprise gesture by reaching out to the Israeli press and offering a long-term cease-fire if Israel would give up all of the West Bank, as well as Gaza, territories Israel gained during the 1967 Middle East War.

But in interviews with the daily newspaper Ha'aretz, Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh and Cabinet Secretary Ghazi Hamad fell far short of recognizing the Jewish state, accepting previous peace accords, and renouncing violence. Israel insists it will not withdraw to the 1967 frontier.

The most immediate concern, however, appeared to be the fate of ordinary Palestinians amid their government's growing isolation and internal strife.

``We are trying to set up a mechanism that supports the Palestinian people," Bush said, two days after Israel approved $11 million in medicine for Palestinian hospitals. ``Our beef is not with the Palestinian people . . . We're working with the Europeans . . . to come up with a mechanism to get food and medicine and aid to the Palestinians."

Material from Associated Press was included in this report. Bryan Bender can be reached at bender@globe.com.

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