WASHINGTON -- President Bush yesterday praised Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's controversial plans to redraw the West Bank's borders as "bold ideas" that could open the way to a separate Palestinian state, even without agreement from Palestinian leaders.
In his first White House meeting with the Israeli leader, Bush emphasized that he was only beginning to learn about Olmert's "convergence" plan, which would remove some smaller Israeli settlements on the West Bank while absorbing larger Israeli settlements into Israel.
But Bush said the ideas "could lead to a two-state solution if a pathway to progress on the [U.S.-designed peace plan] is not open in the period ahead."
U.S. officials have said recently that they did not expect Bush to publicly embrace the plan, for fear of alienating European and Arab allies who view it as little more than a land grab.
Bush's enthusiastic - though preliminary - review seemed to signal his hope for beginning the same kind of strong relationship he had with the previous prime minister, Ariel Sharon.
Bush emphasized that he wanted the two sides to reach an agreement through negotiations, and made clear that he wanted Olmert to reach out to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
But he said during a news conference that while he reserved judgment on the plan, his only worry was that the militant group Hamas, which dominates the Palestinian government, says it wants to destroy Israel.
He praised Olmert's "vision," his willingness to reach out to Abbas, and, if talks fail, his readiness "to consider other ways to move the process forward."
Olmert, elected March 28, sought to emphasize his willingness to deal with the Palestinians. Though in other settings he has criticized Abbas as ineffective, Olmert praised the Palestinian leader yesterday as "genuine" and "sincere."
"We hope that he will have the power to be able to meet the requirements necessary for negotiations," Olmert said.
He said he wanted to meet with Abbas "the sooner, the better," but added that "we will not wait indefinitely."
In their joint news conference, Bush and Olmert sought to project an appearance of harmony, reminiscing about meeting in Jerusalem before either of them was a national leader.
They told reporters that they had discussed Iran's nuclear ambitions, a subject of consuming interest to both sides. Israel has urged strong U.S. action against Iran, and Olmert warned: "This is something that needs to be stopped."
Before the two leaders met, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to further restrict aid to the Hamas-led Palestinian government, over the objections of the Bush administration.
The measure, approved 361 to 37, will make it difficult for nongovernmental organizations, except those providing health care, to receive U.S. funds. The bill also denies U.S. visas to members of the Palestinian Authority, prohibits official U.S. contact with Palestinian government officials, and limits the president's ability to waive the aid ban. The administration, which has cut off direct aid to the Palestinian government, said the bill went too far. It is expected to try to weaken the restrictions in legislation coming before the Senate.
Rep. David E. Price, a North Carolina Democrat, faulted the bill's prohibition on aid to "all nongovernmental groups, private groups and organizations, many of whom are diametrically opposed to Hamas' philosophy."
But Florida Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a chief sponsor, said the United States "must make it unambiguously clear that we will not directly or indirectly allow American taxpayer funds to be used to perpetuate the leadership of an Islamist jihadist group."
Hours before the start of the Bush-Olmert talks, Israel announced it had captured a senior Hamas commander linked to a string of attacks that killed nearly 80 people, including five Americans, at Jerusalem's Hebrew University in July 2002.
The Israeli military said Ibraham Hamed, who had been near the top of most-wanted lists since 1998, surrendered before dawn yesterday to troops who surrounded his hideout in the West Bank town of Ramallah.
Hamas has not carried out a suicide attack inside Israel for more than a year, but the army said Hamed masterminded many deadly attacks in the course of the Palestinians' five-year uprising, or intifada.
Hamed emerged after troops used loudspeakers to threaten to demolish the building with him inside, a tactic it has used in the past when suspected militants refused to surrender. An army bulldozer was standing by.
In the Gaza Strip, representatives of competing Palestinian factions, including Hamas and Fatah, gathered for reconciliatory talks a day after a thunderous gunbattle in the heart of Gaza City. But it was unclear whether the meeting would mark an end to two weeks of intensifying strife, including ambushes, abductions and street fighting.
"We want to end this crisis," Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, a senior Hamas leader, told reporters in Gaza City. "The term `civil war' does not appear in our lexicon."
Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, held a parallel meeting in Ramallah in preparation for more formal negotiations between the two sides later this week. "All of us feel our national cause is in danger," Abbas said. "We all must work to ensure that this dialogue succeeds."
Paul Richter and Laura King write for the Los Angeles Times.