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Abbas says ready to hold talks with Olmert

Written by: Staff
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RAMALLAH, West Bank, Sep 10 (Reuters) Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas today said he was ready to meet Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert as soon as possible to resume long-stalled peace negotiations.

Olmert, who voiced a willingness yesterday to hold talks with Abbas, told the Israeli cabinet it was time to create a ''new horizon'' with the Palestinians, officials said.

''I stand fully ready to meet the prime minister... without prior conditions and we are ready to begin immediately the preparations for this meeting,'' Abbas told a news conference with visiting British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

But Olmert has made clear there could be no progress towards peace unless the Palestinians meet their obligations under an internationally-backed ''road map'' that calls for the dismantling of armed groups, such as the governing Hamas movement.

Israel also has failed to carry out its commitments under the peace plan, including a construction freeze in Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank.

Signs of movement in West Asia peacemaking could give Blair a political boost as he grapples with an unpopular war in Iraq and feuding in Britain's ruling party, which forced him to concede this week that he will leave office within a year.

''I, like you, do believe there is a window of opportunity here,'' Blair said after talks with Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah, welcoming the prospect of a meeting between the Palestinian leader and Olmert.

Blair voiced support for Abbas's efforts to reach an agreement with Hamas on a unity government in a bid to ease international pressure on the Palestinian Authority.

''I believe that such a government, based on the Quartet requirements, does offer the possibility of re-engagement by the international community,'' Blair said.

INTERNATIONAL CONDITIONS The Quartet of peace brokers the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia have cut aid to the current Hamas-led government, demanding it recognise Israel, renounce violence and accept past interim peace deals.

''And I would like to say that so far as I'm concerned, that if such a (unity) government is formed, then I believe that is right that the international community deal with such a government,'' Blair said.

Abbas said he would travel to Gaza later in the day for unity talks with Hamas leaders.

Hamas, which is dedicated to Israel's destruction and defeated Abbas's Fatah party in a January election, responded to Blair's comments by reiterating its rejection of the Quartet's demands to change its policy towards Israel.

''Our people want a government that is based on national requirements and not in response to foreign dictates and conditions,'' Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said in Gaza.

''We are interested in anything that would break the siege of our people but we will never accept that at the expense of the rights of our people,'' Abu Zuhri said.

The recent war in Lebanon and the kidnapping of an Israeli soldier by Gaza militants, including members of Hamas, in late June have also dampened prospects for peacemaking.

The soldier, Gilad Shalit, is still being held, although there are indications he may be released soon.

REUTERS SY BST1722

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