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Olmert Agrees To Meet With Abbas

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Saturday he would meet moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas even though an Israeli soldier is being held captive by Gaza militants with links to the ruling Hamas party.

Olmert spoke during a news conference in Jerusalem with visiting British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who expressed his support for renewing dialogue with Abbas despite Hamas' control of the Palestinian parliament and government.

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 recognize the Hamas-led government and debilitating international sanctions have plunged many Palestinians deeper into poverty.

Although Olmert had previously said he would not try to bypass the Hamas government by negotiating with the moderate Abbas, he has since shelved a plan to unilaterally withdraw from chunks of the West Bank.

At Saturday's news conference Olmert indicated he would talk to Abbas, but said no real progress could be made until captured Cpl. Gilad Shalit is released.

"I have always been willing to meet with Abu Mazen, the head of the Palestinian Authority, and also now I have no conditions for this matter. I can say that a meeting with Abu Mazen could even be helpful on the issue of Gilad Shalit," Olmert added.

Shalit was captured on June 25 by Hamas-linked militants in Gaza who carried out a cross-border raid on a military outpost in southern Israel.

Blair said it was important to "re-energize this process" between Israel and the Palestinians.

"We are at a very preliminary stage in talking about these things, but I hope very much in the time to come that we can make progress, and of course it is important that Cpl. Shalit is released," he said.

Olmert and Blair also discussed Iran's nuclear efforts and a fragile U.N.-brokered cease-fire that brought an end to a monthlong war between Israel and Lebanon's Hezbollah guerrillas.

Olmert praised Blair for taking a staunch position against what are believed to be Tehran's efforts to develop nuclear weapons. But the British leader refused to say if he would back sanctions on Iran if current negotiations fail to force Tehran to comply with international demands to halt uranium enrichment.

Iran says its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes.

The Olmert-Blair visit was overshadowed by internal political crises both leaders face.

Blair surrendered Thursday to a fierce revolt in his Labour Party and pledged to step down within a year.

Olmert has been fiercely criticized for his handling of the war in Lebanon and beleaguered by demands for an official state inquiry, which he has ruled out.

At the news conference, Blair declined to answer any questions on his Labour Party rivals and reprimanded reporters for raising the issue during his Middle East trip. He rejected the idea that the trip was meant to distract attention from his problems back home.

Already weakened by the war in Iraq and his party's slide in opinion polls, Blair's handling of the fighting in Lebanon contributed to his downfall. In particular, Blair's refusal to break ranks with U.S. President George W. Bush and call for a swift end to the fighting was the final provocation for many once-loyal supporters.

His policy in Lebanon also has had repercussions in the Palestinian areas, where a group of prominent intellectuals published a statement Thursday saying Blair would not be welcome in the West Bank.

Blair, saying he understood from his own personal experience how difficult it was to involve a country in war, praised Olmert for the way he led Israel through the recent fighting with Hezbollah.

During his visit to Israel, Blair will meet Shalit's family and with the families of two soldiers captured by Hezbollah in a cross-border raid that sparked the fighting.

This week, Israel said it will be ending its naval blockade of Lebanon, and hopes to withdraw its last soldiers there within two weeks.

The Israelis will be replaced by French, Italian, and Greek warships under a United Nations mandate, reports CBS News correspondent Robert Berger. Israel says their mission is to prevent the shipment of weapons from Syria and Iran to Hezbollah.

The lifting of the air and sea blockade of Lebanon is seen as a boost to the three-week-old cease-fire. It would wind up Israel's recent campaign against Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon, and allow desperately needed reconstruction projects there to proceed freely. Up to 15,000 Lebanese soldiers backed by an equal number of international forces are deploying in southern Lebanon to replace the Israelis under an Aug. 14 truce.

Israel plans to pull all its troops out of Lebanon in time for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, which begins in two weeks, reports Berger. Israel is pleased about the deployment of an international force, which will include French, Italian, Spanish and Turkish troops, among others. More than 3,000 foreign troops are already in Lebanon and when the number reaches 5,000 Israel will pull out. UN officials say that should happen in about 10 days.

Blair will also hold talks Sunday with Abbas. However, Blair will not meet with Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas or other members of his government, which Britain and other Western countries do not recognize.

Haniyeh blasted Blair and his government in a column published Saturday in the London-based Guardian newspaper, accusing him of having "one-sided" policies that hurt the Palestinians.

"At the heart of our region's problems is the Israeli occupation, which has brought about endless suffering and disasters. If you wish to do the right thing, Mr. Blair, then work for the end of occupation without further delay," Haniyeh wrote in the column.

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