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Israel's Olmert Headed for a U.S. Visit


Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas is meeting today with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni at the World Economic Conference in Egypt.

It's the first high-level Israel-Palestinian talk since the new Hamas government took power last month. The meting comes as Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert heads to Washington for talks with President Bush, and as tension increases between Abbas' Fatah movement and Hamas.

NPR's Linda Gradstein reports.


Just two weeks after taking office, Ehud Olmert is heading to Washington. Besides meeting President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Olmert will address a joint session of Congress. That's an honor that even his predecessor, Ariel Sharon, was not given during his more than 20 visits to Washington.

There are two issues on the agenda: the Iranian nuclear program and Olmert's plan for a unilateral withdrawal from part of the West Bank.

Israeli officials say that on Iran there is agreement between Israel and the U.S. that a nuclear Iran is unacceptable. And if military action is needed, Israel is happy to let the U.S. take the lead. But on Olmert's unilateral withdrawal plan, there is less agreement.

Israeli author Gershom Gorenberg(ph), who recently published a book on Jewish settlements in the West Bank, says Olmert has backed away from his unilateral approach in the last few days as differences with Washington became clear. U.S. officials say they still support the Roadmap to Peace, which calls for negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians leading to a Palestinian state.

Mr. GERSHOM GORENBERG (Israeli Author): It doesn't seem that the Americans want to abandon the Roadmap. It doesn't seem that they're ready to sign off on the unilateral withdrawal as the first option. And I don't think that at any point it was really realistic to expect that the United States was going to say we can give you the stamp of approval that these are the final borders.

GRADSTEIN: The border that Olmert wants is expected to run along the lines of the controversial barrier Israel is building in and around the West Bank. Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat said he hoped Olmert's visit to Washington would lead to quote "the end of unilateralism."

Dan Dyker, a political analyst on Israel television, says the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is far down on the agenda of the Bush administration.

Mr. DAN DYKER (Political Analyst, Israeli Television): The United States is very busy with two countries, Iran and Iraq. Those are numbers, Iran number one, and Iraq also one, or one or two, on their list. And the Israeli-Palestinian issue is really not on the top of their agenda.

So this is going to be for them a maintenance trip. I think Olmert was going to not try to push for anything historic.

GRADSTEIN: Olmert and Bush will also discuss the new Hamas government. Tensions between Hamas and Palestinian Leader Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah are running high. Yesterday the leader of Palestinian intelligence was badly wounded in a bombing in his headquarters in Gaza City. Maj. Gen. Tariq Abu Rajab is a senior member of Fatah and close to Abbas. There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack that killed one of Abu Rajab's bodyguards, who is also his nephew, and wounded eight other Palestinians.

Several Palestinian officials blamed Hamas. Abu Rajab was transferred to Israel to try to save his leg. Abbas condemned the assassination attempt, saying it quote "threatens the Palestinian Authority with grave danger." A Hamas spokesman said it would be investigated. Some Palestinian officials have warned that Fatah and Hamas are on the verge of a civil war in Gaza.

Linda Gradstein, NPR News, Jerusalem. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Linda Gradstein
Linda Gradstein has been the Israel correspondent for NPR since 1990. She is a member of the team that received the Overseas Press Club award for her coverage of the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the team that received Alfred I. DuPont-Columbia University Award for Excellence in Broadcast Journalism for her coverage of the Gulf War. Linda spent 1998-9 as a Knight Journalist Fellow at Stanford University.