WASHINGTON - The United States is encouraging Israel to hold "serious talks" with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas as an alternative to the Hamas-dominated Palestinian Authority.
The advice was publicized Tuesday by White House press secretary Tony Snow before Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert called on President Bush. Their meeting, Olmert's first with Bush since becoming prime minister, was expected to focus in part on the Israeli leader's plan to impose a West Bank settlement by relinquishing most of the area for a Palestinian state.
"We are interested in making sure that the prime minister has serious talks with his Palestinian counterpart," Snow said.
With U.S. and European support, Israel is boycotting the Hamas-led Palestinian government. Israel already has begun sounding out Abbas, who leads the Fatah faction and is considered far more moderate than Hamas, which refuses to recognize Israel's existence.
Abbas met last weekend at the World Economic Forum in Egypt with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and has appealed for an end to violence among Palestinians in Gaza.
Olmert might not get a conclusive judgment from Bush on Tuesday on the West Bank plan. But he is looking for clues on whether the president will insist that any plan to carve up the West Bank with the aim of establishing Israel's final borders requires the approval of Palestinian leaders.
Two years ago, Bush gave then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon a green light to eventually absorb major Jewish settlements in the event of a peace accord. But Bush's recognition of "facts on the ground" - the settlements are solidly Jewish and some are virtually cities in size - was promptly qualified with U.S. insistence that any territorial accord would require the approval of the Palestinian side.
Before his White House session with Bush, Olmert discussed concerns about Iran with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld in a 35-minute meeting at the Pentagon.
Iran was taken up as "a country of concern that we have to pay attention to," Pentagon press secretary Eric Ruff said. Olmert and Rumsfeld agreed to continue to exchange information about Iran, Ruff said.
On a fast-paced visit, Olmert had talks planned Wednesday with Vice President Dick Cheney and House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and speaks to a joint meeting of both chambers of Congress.
He had a private a dinner meeting Monday with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Stephen Hadley, the president's national security adviser.
With Israel shunning the Hamas-led Palestinian government, a senior Israeli government official told The Associated Press that Israel would be willing to deal with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas - if he starts fulfilling pledges he made before the January election that gave Hamas control.
"He said after the election he would dismantle the terrorist organizations," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the press.
Olmert's trip comes at a tumultuous time. Hamas has control of the Palestinian legislature and most of the rest of government, but its supporters fought pitched gun fights in Gaza City on Monday with backers of Abbas, who leads the rival Fatah party.
Hamas is considered a terrorist group by the U.S. and the European Union. It refuses to accept Israel's existence or renounce attacks on the Jewish state.
In a sign that Bush faces a rocky path at home, the House voted Tuesday to ban U.S. assistance to the Palestinian Authority and any diplomatic contacts with Hamas while also denying visas to members of the Authority.
The chief sponsor, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., said it would send a message to Hamas that the United States will not support a government run by terrorists.
The White House, which already has cut off funds to the Hamas-led government, has critized the bill as uneeded and overreaching in its restrictions. The Senate is considering a less restrictive bill.
Tony Snow, the White House spokesman, said he did not expect "anything formal" to emerge from the White House meeting. The president and the prime minister "are going to be talking about ways to keep moving forward" with peacemaking, Snow said.
Similarly, Israeli ambassador Daniel Ayalon said "we must all examine different options to break the stalemate and all these issues will be discussed between Prime Minister Olmert and President Bush as a very good and trusted friend."