Israel PM agrees to meet Palestinian president for talks

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The Independent Online

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said on Saturday that he planned to meet the moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and work with him to push peace efforts, despite the detention of an Israeli soldier by Gaza militants with links to the ruling Hamas party.

At a joint news conference with Mr Olmert, visiting Prime Minister Tony Blair expressed his support for a renewal of Israeli dialogue with Mr Abbas, despite Hamas' control of the Palestinian parliament and government. " It's very important that we see what we can do to re-energise this process," said Mr Blair. "We are in a very preliminary stage of debating and talking about these things, but I hope very much that in the time to come we can make progress."

Long-stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks hit a new obstacle in January when the Islamic Hamas group swept a Palestinian parliamentary election. Israel, backed by the United States, Britain and other Western countries, has refused to recognise the Hamas-led government and debilitating international sanctions have plunged Palestinians deeper into poverty.

Mr Olmert said his first priority with the Palestinians was the release of Corporal Gilad Shalit, captured in June by Hamas-linked militants from Gaza on a cross-border raid in southern Israel. His freedom is "a condition for any progress", Mr Olmert said. He did not say when he would meet Mr Abbas.

Mr Blair, who flew to Jerusalem yesterday, received warm thanks last night from his Israeli counterpart for meeting the families of three Israeli soldiers whose kidnapping two months ago set off the latest flare-up in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

But the meeting risks inflaming Arab opinion, already running high. Hundreds of Palestinians have objected to Mr Blair's trip on the grounds that he is excessively pro-Israel, and Downing Street staff say they anticipate Palestinian protests again today. A highly publicised meeting with the soldiers' families may strengthen suspicions that Mr Blair cares about Israelis caught in the conflict, but not about the much larger number of Arab families mourning loved ones killed by Israeli bombing.

As well as seeing Mr Olmert and members of the Israeli Cabinet, Mr Blair will meet Mr Abbas and leaders of Palestinian civic society today. But there will be no contact with any members of Hamas, who form Palestine's elected government. "The problem remains that Hamas have not foresworn the use of violence," his spokesman said.

Downing Street staff denied that Mr Blair has fled to the Middle East to escape conflict in his own party. The visit has evoked memories of Margaret Thatcher, who visited Paris as a crisis over her premiership came to a head, hastening her downfall. But Mr Blair's spokesman said: "History doesn't always repeat itself."