WASHINGTON - (VIDEO) In a joint press conference with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, US President George W. Bush on Tuesday conveyed the message that the convergence plan can only be implemented through negotiations.
Bush praised Olmert's convergence plan for a unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank, saying it could be "an important step toward the peace we both support."
But Bush, in the first White House meeting with the new Israeli leader, stopped short of a full endorsement, saying a negotiated agreement "best serves Israelis and Palestinians and the cause of peace."
Bush and Olmert during press conference (Photo: Reuters)
Bush also urged Israel to reach out to Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas as an alternative to dealing with the Hamas-dominated Palestinian Authority.
Abbas "speaks out for peace and negotiations," Bush said.
"Hamas must recognize Israel's right to exist, must abandon terror, must accept all previous agreements," Bush added. "No country can be expected to make peace with those who deny its right to exist, and who use terror to attack its population."
Olmert said he extended his hand to Abbas, and hopes "he will take the necessary steps which he committed to in order to move forward."
But he said the rise of Hamas, which refuses to recognize Israel's right to exist and regards terrorism as a legitimate tool, "severely undermines the possibility of of promoting a genuine peace process."
All smiles. Bush and Olmert at the White House (Photo: AP)
Olmert said that if Hamas abandons its refusal to recognize Israel and its embrace of violence, "they will find us a willing partner in peace."
But he said Israel would not enter an agreement with any party that refuses to recognize its right to exist.
"We cannot wait indefinitely for the Palestinians to change," he said.
Bush called Olmert's ideas "bold," saying that while any final peace agreement must be the product of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, "the prime minister's ideas could be an important step toward the peace we both support."
"I am encouraged by his constructive efforts to find ways to move the peace process forward," he said.
Olmert on Iran: This is the moment of truth
The two officials also extensively discussed the Iranian issue, and at the end of the meeting Bush made it clear that he prefers a diplomatic solution for the problem.
"We determined that the Iranian regime must not obtain nuclear weapons," he said.
Olmert warned: "This is a moment of truth. It is still not too late to prevent this from happening."
Earlier Tuesday, Olmert met with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. During their conference, Olmert defined Hizbullah and Hamas as envoys of the Iranian government, which calls for the destruction of Israel.
The two discussed the way in which the Israeli government was dealing with the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority, which it defines as a terror regime.
Although the prime minister hoped to recruit support in America for his convergence plan, he has been concerned by the cold reception the US appears to be giving the plan to unilaterally withdraw from areas in the West Bank. The US has only asked to be elucidated on the plan’s basic foundations, and is cautiously withholding its endorsement of the plan.
On Monday night, Olmert met with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and explicated the convergence plan to her, answering her numerous questions on the matter.
Yitzhak Benhorin and AP contributed to the report