Bush praises Olmert's West Bank plan

President George W. Bush has cautiously welcomed Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's plan for the West Bank.

But the US leader said peace would best be served by a negotiated agreement with the Palestinians.

"The prime minister's ideas could be an important step to peace we both support," Bush said after meeting Olmert, who is on his first US visit since his election in March.

Olmert's "convergence" plan calls for removing remote Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, keeping larger enclaves forever and imposing a border if peace efforts remain frozen.

Palestinians contend the proposal would deny them a viable state envisaged in the "road map", sponsored by the US, European Union, UN and Russia.

At a joint news conference, Bush supported Olmert's preference for negotiations over unilateral moves.

"I believe Prime Minister Olmert agrees that a negotiated final-status agreement best serves the Israelis and the Palestinians and the cause of peace," he said.

Olmert said he would exhaust all options to negotiate and reach out a hand to moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whose Fatah faction was crushed by the Islamic militant group Hamas in a January election.

The United States and Israel say Hamas must renounce violence, recognize Israel and accept past interim peace deals if it is to be a negotiating partner. Hamas says talks with Israel would be a waste of time.

"I assured the prime minister that our position is steady and strong - that Hamas must change," Bush said.

Olmert said Israel would make arrangements to supply humanitarian aid to the Palestinians, whose Hamas-led government is now boycotted by the United States and other foreign donors.

- REUTERS

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