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United States, Israel reach out to Palestinian leader

Updated:
NEW YORK (AP) _ The United States and Israel sought on Monday to shore up a sometimes strained relationship with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who is trying to form a working alliance with Hamas officials who refuse to recognize the Israeli government.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice held a private meeting with Abbas without their usual retinue of aides, on the sidelines of the United Nations opening session. Rice's spokesman, Sean McCormack, would not detail U.S. goals for the meeting or say whether Rice carried a warning for Abbas about the consequences of a cozier relationship with Hamas. Her Israeli counterpart, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, was meeting with Abbas separately Monday night.

President Bush is to see the Palestinian leader Wednesday, the same day that the United States and other would-be Mideast peacemakers hold their first session since Israel's summer war with Hezbollah militants in Lebanon. The U.N. Security Council also plans an open meeting Thursday that is intended to revive the Mideast peace process.

Meanwhile, U.S. officials said little about reports of an impending release of an Israeli solider captured by Palestinian militants in June. Release now would give all sides some good news to announce during a round of Mideast meetings in New York this week that had been expected to focus on the continued standoff between Hamas and the West.

Egypt has been trying to broker a deal for the release of Cpl. Gilad Shalit. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan also has pushed for the release of Shalit and two other Israeli soldiers.

``I will simply restate what the United States has stated time and time again,'' Rice said when asked about a possible release as she began a meeting with Livni. ``Those prisoners, both the two in Lebanon and the one in the Palestinian territories, should be released and released unconditionally.''

Rice's morning session with Livni was their third meeting in a week. Bush saw the Israeli diplomat in Washington last week. Rice and Livni have said they want to work with Abbas, the only senior Palestinian leader their nations will deal with, but are wary of his attempts to form a unity government with Hamas.

Hamas defeated Abbas' Fatah Party in legislative elections in January, although Abbas retains his position as president.

``We support voices of moderation. Obviously, President Abbas is one,'' national security adviser Stephen Hadley said Monday. ``He's committed to peace, and we have worked with him and would continue to work with him. That's why the president is going to see him.''

In the past, U.S. officials have made little secret of frustration that Abbas has not shown greater leadership, while Fatah leaders complain that the United States has done next to nothing to support Abbas.

After the Hamas-led Cabinet took office in late March, the United States and European Union, the two biggest donors to the Palestinian Authority, cut off hundreds of millions of dollars in aid. Abbas wants to resolve the political stalemate in hopes of restarting the flow, but discussions have stalled over the U.S. demand that Hamas fully renounce violence, recognize Israel and agree to abide by commitments made by the previous secular Palestinian leaders.

While stressing that decisions about their political future rests with the Palestinians, McCormack noted mounting unrest and dissatisfaction with the Hamas-led government. He would not say how the United States would respond if Abbas and Hamas forged a new government arrangement without any accommodation by Hamas. ``The details matter here,'' McCormack said.

Hamas has rejected the demands from the U.S. and others, despite the financial crunch that has left the treasury unable to pay the salaries of 165,000 government workers. The government is the largest employer in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and many families are scraping by on dwindling savings, loans and handouts.

In Cairo, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak told state media that Israel may be willing to free Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Shalit.

Israeli government spokeswoman Miri Eisin refused to comment on Mubarak's statement.

``We have nothing to say. We respect Mubarak, and Israel does not talk about any of these issues,'' she said.

Israeli government and security officials said Sunday there was progress in the talks in the first sign of optimism from Israel regarding a possible deal. But the officials said a deal could take a week or more to complete.

Shalit was snatched on June 25 outside the Gaza Strip by Palestinian militants, sparking a military offensive against Gaza. Palestinians affiliated with the ruling Hamas group demanded the release of hundreds of prisoners in exchange for the soldier's release.

Days later, Hezbollah guerrillas abducted two soldiers in northern Israel, triggering a larger assault against Lebanon that lasted a month. A U.N.-brokered cease-fire called for the release of the two Hezbollah-held soldiers, but did not require it as a condition to stop the fighting.
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