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Olmert Tells U.S. Jews: Israel to Work with Abbas

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert embarked on his U.S. visit this week with a strong message of support for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

He said Sunday that he would strengthen Abbas, who has formed his own government without Hamas, by releasing withheld tax revenues and establishing regular contacts with him.

In a 40-minute presentation to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Olmert said he was optimistic that despite the recent violence, which has led to a Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip and the collapse of the Palestinian unity government, the current circumstances present an opportunity to prop up moderate Palestinians.

Olmert’s remarks came on the eve of his Tuesday meeting with President Bush in Washington and just hours after the firing of four rockets into the northern Israeli town of Kiryat Shemona, the first breach of the northern frontier since the cessation of last summer’s war with Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Still, it was last week’s rapid Hamas takeover in Gaza and the dissolution of the Palestinian unity government that is now clearly dominating the agenda of the prime minister, whose visit was scheduled long before the recent developments.

Olmert said he would help support Abbas by establishing regular contacts with him and by transferring tax revenues Israel has collected on behalf of the Palestinians, an estimated $700 million. Those revenues had been withheld because of Hamas’ role in the Palestinian government since its election in January 2006.

“We will cooperate with this government,” Olmert said. “We will de-freeze monies that we kept under our control. And we will do everything we can in order to help upgrade the quality of life for the Palestinian people.”

Olmert also said he would talk to Abbas, who most Western states view as a moderate alternative to the extremism of Hamas, “about the political horizon for what will eventually be the basis of a permanent agreement” with Israel. The purpose, Olmert said, is to show the Palestinians that “when they are ready to refrain from terror there is genuine chance for a better life.”

Pressure to channel Western aid to the Palestinians — aid that was shut down following the Hamas electoral victory in January 2006 — has been growing for weeks. In May, American and European negotiators agreed to a mechanism to transfer funds to an account controlled by the Palestinian finance minister, a Fatah member.

Seymour Reich, the president of the Israel Policy Forum and a former chairman of the Presidents Conference, told JTA that participants in a meeting with Bush on Friday told him they detected pressure building on Olmert to release the funds.

But Arye Mekel, Israel’s consul general in New York, disputed that, saying that despite Washington’s support for the move, Israel had come to its current policy on its own; the recent violence had merely provided the opening.

“He also believes he should do it now,” Mekel said of Olmert. “And this is the opportunity.”

In a sign of how dramatically his agenda for his U.S. visit this week has been changed by the Palestinian civil conflict, Olmert didn’t mention Iran until three-quarters of the way through his presentation.

Calling the possibility of an Iranian nuclear weapon Israel’s greatest potential threat, he said that international sanctions were effective but insufficient and that he would talk to Bush about how to strengthen the sanctions regime.

“I firmly and genuinely believe that Iran can be effectively stopped without military actions,” Olmert said, provided the nations of the world come together.

Despite Sunday’s attack on Kiryat Shemona and the withering criticism Olmert has come under for his handling of last summer’s conflict, the prime minister said the situation in the North was “dramatically different” from what it was before the conflict with Hezbollah. The last nine months, he said, were the safest northern Israel has been in 40 years.

Olmert met Sunday in New York with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. On Monday, he was slated to meet privately with former New York City mayor and current presidential contender Rudolph Giuliani before traveling to Washington for meetings with top U.S. officials, according to a spokesman for the Israeli consulate.

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