Olmert agrees to US request for talks with Palestinians

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The Independent US

Israel's Prime Minister agreed to President Bush's request last night that he start negotiations soon with the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. But Ehud Olmert made clear that if no peace deal was achieved "within three or four years" the Jewish state would unilaterally impose its own border rearrangement.

"I accept the sincerity of Mahmoud Abbas," Mr Olmert said at a joint press conference with Mr Bush, after his first visit to Washington since winning the March elections in Israel. But, he noted pointedly, " I hope he [Abbas] will have the power" to deliver on his promise to dismantle armed militant groups.

"We cannot wait indefinitely for the Palestinians to change," Mr Olmert said. "If we come to the conclusion that no progress is possible, we will be compelled to try a different route." This would involve the direct incorporation of some heavily populated Jewish settlements on the West Bank into Israel, with the rest of the territory becoming the heart of a new Palestinian state.

The outcome appeared to represent a qualified success for Mr Bush in his bid to steer the Israeli Prime Minister away from his plan to impose a territorial settlement with the Palestinians by carrying out a unilateral withdrawal from most of the West Bank.

Before the two leaders met, the White House played down talk of important decisions at the meeting, which came at an especially fraught moment ­ after a fortnight of bloody clashes in Gaza between gunmen from Hamas, the militant group that sensationally won control of the Palestinian Parliament in January, and loyalists of President Abbas.

Mr Olmert again ruled out all contact with Hamas, as long as it refuses to acknowledge Israel's right to exist. But Washington is strongly pushing him to negotiate with the more moderate Mr Abbas.

But Mr Bush's own willingness to press Israel may have its limits. Two years ago, citing "realities on the ground," he caved in to the demand of Ariel Sharon, the Israeli leader at the time, to incorporate major Jewish settlements in the occupied territories into Israel, under any final settlement.

Today the US President is in a much weaker position domestically, with his authority under growing challenge from the Republican-controlled Congress. The House of Representatives proved the point yesterday by defying the White House (and part of the influential Jewish lobby here) by passing a measure cutting US aid to the Hamas-controlled Palestinian Authority.

The bill, which the Bush administration says goes too far and curtails its room to manoeuvre, would end the flow of funds to non-governmental groups working in the West Bank and Gaza except for health expenditure. It denies visas to members of the Palestinian Authority, and bans contacts with Hamas because it is classified by the State Department as a terrorist organisation.

The other major topic during Mr Olmert's three days in Washington has been Iran, and its suspected programme to develop a nuclear weapon ­ of which Israel feels itself to be the intended target. At a session at the Pentagon with Donald Rumsfeld, the Secretary of Defence, the two men discussed Iran "as a country of concern we have to pay attention to," a US spokesman said. That attention certainly involves consideration of a pre-emptive strike to destroy Iran's nuclear sites.

Meanwhile, a top Hamas fugitive blamed for attacks that killed dozens of Israelis and five Americans surrendered to Israeli troops yesterday after they ringed his West Bank home and threatened to demolish it with him inside. The troops surrounded a two-storey building in a well-to-do district of Ramallah, just 200 yards from the residence of President Abbas. Soldiers warned Ibrahim Hamed the building would be razed if he did not come out.

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