WASHINGTON (AP) _ Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is hoping his promises to grant his Palestinian counterpart a series of goodwill gestures will bolster the new government in the West Bank after Hamas militants' bloody takeover of the Gaza Strip.
Both President Bush and Olmert heaped praise on Mahmoud Abbas as they began their meeting Tuesday at the White House.
``He has spoken out for moderation,'' Bush said, speaking of Abbas in the Oval Office with Olmert at his side. ``He is a voice that is a reasonable voice amongst the extremists in your neighborhood.''
``Like you, I want to strengthen the moderates,'' echoed Olmert.
Later, he made his first concrete pledge to do so, saying that in the coming week he will introduce a proposal to his government to unlock millions in frozen tax revenue that Israel collects on behalf of the Palestinians.
Olmert did not disclose how much money Israel would free up but said it was part of a series of gestures to help Abbas in his struggle with Hamas.
Speaking to Israeli reporters traveling with him, Olmert said he would act to ease travel restrictions in the West Bank and also would consider releasing Palestinian prisoners and shoring up Abbas' military forces.
``We have an opportunity to seize the situation and work toward the establishment of a Palestinian state and fulfill the president's vision of two states for two peoples,'' Olmert said. ``We need to strengthen the security forces (of Abbas) and our cooperation with them.''
The almost 3 million Palestinians now essentially have two governments. Nearly half are under Hamas' control in the Gaza Strip, with the rest under Abbas' authority in the West Bank. Hamas is sworn to Israel's destruction, while Abbas' more moderate Fatah movement seeks peace with the Jewish state.
Hamas gunmen took over congested Gaza last week, and Fatah fled in desperation. And Israel's other Arab neighbors _ Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan _ appeared Tuesday to be trying to isolate Hamas to force it to seek reconciliation with Abbas' new government.
Bush and Olmert repeatedly portrayed Abbas as the one true leader of the Palestinian people.
Olmert said the Hamas takeover of Gaza creates a new opportunity. He said the new government on the West Bank ``deserves to be given both a chance and assistance,'' and he hoped to begin meeting regularly with Abbas upon his return.
In his meeting with Bush, Olmert also played down the possibility of a breakthrough in peace negotiations with Syria, despite recent feelers from both Jerusalem and Damascus.
``The Syrian leader said that he is against any preconditions on the Israel side, but he is certainly for preconditions on the Syrian side,'' Olmert said. ``I'm not certain that the understanding of the president of Syria can lay the foundations for immediate discussions.''
Israel and Syria have both recently signaled a willingness to restart peace talks. The United States has opposed talking to Syria because of that country's ties to Iran and militants in Iraq and Lebanon. However, Bush is under pressure from allies, lawmakers and advisers who think Washington should improve relations with Syria to try to isolate Iran.
Olmert dismissed the notion that the United States opposed Israeli negotiations with Bashar Assad's government in Syria. ``The United States never came to us with a demand not to have negotiations with the Syrians, and we never thought to ask permission,'' he said.
At the same time, he said he doubted the lack of negotiations would lead to immediate conflict with Syria.
``I believe that a war will not break out. We are not interested in it, and I believe the Syrians are not interested in it. Certain statements can sometimes lead to miscalculations, and we need to be wary of that.''