WASHINGTON -- President Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, pledging at a White House meeting yesterday to "share a common way" through the latest Middle East crisis, said they would pursue peace in the region despite a volatile schism that has divided Palestinians into two camps.
Olmert vowed to meet frequently with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, praising Abbas as a promising partner who could help lead the region toward a "two-state solution" of Israelis and Palestinians living side-by-side, a goal supported by the Israeli government and the Bush administration.
Bush, who is steering U.S. aid to the new government named by Abbas in the West Bank while sending humanitarian aid to Palestinians in Gaza, now controlled by the militant Hamas, called Abbas "a reasonable voice amongst the extremists."
This rallying around Abbas, who was elected president by Palestinians before they handed Hamas an electoral victory with control of the parliament early last year, was an attempt to isolate Hamas after its recent takeover of Gaza.
"This is the vision that we share," said Olmert, pledging to "strengthen the moderates" in the region and calling Abbas the "only person who was widely elected in a democratic manner by all of the Palestinian people."
He said, "I am going to make every possible effort to cooperate with him."
Abbas had told Bush in a phone call this week that he wants to pursue peace talks aimed at a two-state solution.
Some analysts see hope despite the Palestinian schism.
"This is the season for second chances," said David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Studies. "I think Palestinian unification will remain the goal. ... Any Palestinian who is anyone is going to have to speak of unification."
The best role for the United States, Makovsky suggested, would be to help Israel press its case for negotiations with a unified Palestinian Authority.
U.S.-Israeli talks on the crisis started in earnest yesterday, with Bush and Olmert meeting for an hour and a half in the Oval Office before bringing their aides into the room.
The White House remained noncommittal on whether Israel should release Palestinian prisoners and whether Abbas should call new elections. White House spokesman Tony Snow said the U.S. is "certainly not going to advise" Abbas "how he would proceed."
"This is a government that we want to support," Snow said. "We want to support their democratic aspirations and their working with the Israeli government."
Snow also rejected the notion that the U.S. is isolating Hamas, pointing to the $40 million in aid for people living in a region controlled by Hamas.
"I don't think you isolate them when you devote ... $40 million to humanitarian aid," Snow said. "The real point here is that there is an effort on our part, and there are parallel efforts with our allies, to provide humanitarian aid and to try to deal with this crisis."
Mark Silva writes for the Chicago Tribune.