Washington presses Olmert to talk to Abbas

US House overwhelmingly backs bill to brand PA ‘terrorist sanctuary,’ further restrict aid

WASHINGTON (Reuters) — Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert met President George W. Bush on Tuesday facing US pressure to hold “serious talks” with moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and bypass the Hamas-led government.

Olmert, on his first US visit since his election in March, intended to outline his emerging plan for the future of the occupied West Bank to a wary American president. Bush was expected to hold off on embracing Olmert’s ideas.

They call for removing remote Jewish settlements, keeping larger enclaves forever and unilaterally imposing a border if peace efforts remain frozen.

Senior officials said Bush wants to be convinced that Olmert’s go-it-alone proposal, which has spurred Arab opposition and European concern, will not prejudice any future final-status talks for a two-state solution to the conflict.

White House Spokesman Tony Snow said Washington does not expect Israel to talk to Hamas. The Islamist group, which won control of parliament in January, refuses to renounce violence and officially calls for Israel’s destruction.

But Snow said the administration considers Abbas, who has a history of negotiating with Israel, the “logical person to deal with.”

“We are interested in making sure that [Olmert] has serious talks with his Palestinian counterpart,” Snow told reporters.

Olmert has expressed a willingness to do so, but has deemed Abbas “powerless” to act while Hamas rules.

With peacemaking long on hold and hopes for progress dimmed further, no major decisions were expected at the summit.

“Olmert needs to convince the United States … that we exhausted all opportunities and that there’s nothing else, and we have to go for this unilateral disengagement,” one Israeli official said.

Olmert’s challenge

Olmert took over from Ariel Sharon in January after the Israeli leader suffered an incapacitating stroke, and his centrist Kadima Party won a March 28 general election.

The former Jerusalem mayor is only just emerging from his predecessor’s shadow. Many Israelis credit the legendary ex-general with turning Bush into the most staunchly pro-Israel president ever to occupy the White House.

But Middle East diplomacy has slipped down the agenda as Bush confronts low approval ratings, an increasingly unpopular war in Iraq and an emerging nuclear challenge from Iran.

Under his West Bank plan, Olmert intends with or without Palestinian agreement to bolster major settlement blocs that Israel says it intends to keep and to set a border by 2010.

Palestinians say that would deny them a viable state envisaged in a peace “road map” championed by Bush and co-sponsored by the European Union, United Nations and Russia.

The “convergence” proposal, which Israeli officials said would likely involve the removal of some 60,000 settlers, is still largely on the drawing board, and is intended to build on Israel’s Gaza withdrawal last year.

Olmert has said he prefers a negotiated settlement but does not think one is possible with Hamas in power. Washington is leading an aid boycott against the Hamas-led government. The group is on the US and EU lists of terrorist organisations.

A recent spate of gun battles between rival groups in Gaza have also clouded peace prospects.

“Abbas said after the (Palestinian) election he would dismantle the terrorist organisations — there would be one gun, one government, one rule,” the senior Israeli official said. “Fine — start.” Before the White House session, Olmert met Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld for talks that focused on Iran. Both the United States and Israel are worried about the prospects of a nuclear-armed Iran.

Israel is the only nuclear power in the Middle East. It has said it wants to take a back seat in international diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis but views seriously Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s calls for its destruction.

The US House of Representatives, meanwhile, overwhelmingly backed legislation on Tuesday to brand the Palestinian Authority a “terrorist sanctuary” and further restrict aid, defying Bush in the midst of high-profile Mideast talks.

The house voted 361-37 for the bill that backers said was needed to block any US funds from supporting Hamas.

The Bush administration contends this bill could tie its hands in that effort. The administration has stopped direct aid to the Hamas-led government, but the bill would put into law more sweeping bans. A Palestinian representative denounced the bill as harmful to peace.

The house bill would cut off direct and indirect US assistance to the Palestinian Authority, other than aid to meet “the basic human health needs” of the Palestinian people and for measures Congress approves on a case-by-case basis. It would limit aid through nongovernmental organizations and restrict diplomatic contacts with Hamas representatives.

The bill calls for the Palestinian Authority to be designated a “terrorist sanctuary.” It would ban visas for entry into the United States of any member of the PA or any of its components.

It also recommends withholding US contributions to the United Nations proportional to the amount the world body provides the authority.

Facing insurmountable momentum in the house for the bill, congressional aides said the administration will aim to stall or weaken the companion measure in the Senate. The Senate version already gives the administration more leeway than the house-passed bill.

“We hope we’ll be able to move” the bill, said Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, second-ranked in the Senate Republican leadership. Discussions were being held with the White House on ways it could waive bans in the bill, which has about 88-cosponors from the 100-member Senate, he said.

Under the house bill, aid would be restored if Hamas recognises Israel’s right to exist, renounces terrorism and disarms.

Nabil Abu Rudaina, an adviser to Abbas, told Reuters in Jerusalem the House action “harms the peace process and undermines international efforts … to lift the siege imposed on the Palestinian people.” Hamas took power in March after winning January parliamentary elections. Tensions have surged between Fateh, the long-dominant Palestinian faction, and Hamas, and skirmishes have given rise to fears of mounting violence among rival Palestinian factions.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer, an Oregon Democrat who led a small charge against the bill in nearly three hours of debate on Monday, said it was too punitive on Palestinians and “onerous and burdensome” on the administration’s diplomatic efforts.

“I am afraid that this legislation may well backfire by actually strengthening the hands of extremists,” he said.

But Rep. Tom Lantos of California, top International Relations Committee Democrat and the bill’s co-sponsor, said instead of punishing Palestinians, the bill was “carefully crafted and aimed at Hamas.” “The United States must make it unambiguously clear that we will not support a terrorist regime,” said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican 

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