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Israel ex-PM Olmert defiantly rallies behind Palestinian leader

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New York (AFP)

Israel's former prime minister Ehud Olmert on Tuesday called Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas a partner for peace, defiantly rejecting efforts by Benjamin Netanyahu's government to sideline the veteran leader.

Olmert, Netanyahu's centrist predecessor who led Israel from 2006 to 2009, met with Abbas in New York hours after the Palestinian leader went before the UN Security Council to denounce US President Donald Trump's Middle East plan.

The former prime minister did not criticize Trump's plan, which paves the way for Israel to annex much of the West Bank, but said that any future negotiations needed to involve Abbas, an 84-year-old considered a moderate.

"He is a man of peace, he is opposed to terror, and therefore he is the only partner that we can deal with," Olmert told reporters with Abbas at his side.

"It will take some time but these negotiations will take place, and the partner of Israel to these negotiations will be Mahmud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority," he said.

Hinting at Netanyahu's political woes, Olmert said: "Who will be the partner on the Israeli side? We will know later this year."

Abbas, who succeeded Yasser Arafat in 2005, called Olmert "my dear friend" and said he wanted to "extend my hand to the Israeli people."

"We want to achieve peace through peaceful means and negotiations," he said. "Let me reiterate again, we are against and do not want violence."

Israel's ambassador to the United Nations, Danny Danon, had warned Olmert against meeting Abbas, whom Netanyahu's government accuses of inciting unrest.

Danon told the Security Council that the Palestinians needed a new leader, saying that Abbas was unable to consider the "realistic" proposals of Trump.

Olmert "is endorsing diplomatic terrorism against Israel. It is shameful," Danon said after Olmert met Abbas.

Olmert is close to Netanyahu's centrist rival Benny Gantz who went neck-and-neck with the prime minister in two inconclusive elections last year, with a third vote scheduled for March 2.

Olmert, however, said he was not speaking for Gantz.

Olmert stepped down under a cloud of corruption scandals. Netanyahu in November was also indicted on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.

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