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Days after Palestinians claimed secret meetings had taken place between Hamas and European Union officials, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana arrived in Israel on Saturday night for talks with regional leaders.
During his three-day visit, Solana will meet with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. He will also travel to the Palestinian territories for discussions with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salaam Fayad, and visit Jordan.
Solana's visit comes ahead of a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Portugal later this week.
According to Palestinian claims, published exclusively in The Jerusalem Post last week, secret meetings were conducted between EU security officials and Hamas leaders in the Gaza Strip in recent weeks. The Europeans were said to have met with top Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar, as well as Ahmed Yusef, political adviser to Hamas's Ismail Haniyeh, who still claims to be the PA's prime minister.
Sources close to Hamas confirmed that EU officials had visited the Gaza Strip recently for talks focusing on security issues. According to the sources, the Hamas leaders urged the EU representatives to work to end the boycott of the Hamas government in the Gaza Strip, and to pressure Israel to reopen the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt.
An Israeli official said the EU's official policy remained to engage exclusively with Fayad's government and to encourage reconciliation between Israel and the Palestinians.
The official said there were voices within the EU pushing to bring Hamas back into the picture and to reestablish a PA national unity government. However, Israel believed these voices were marginal and out of sync with EU position and that the majority in Europe still believed appeasing Hamas would only damage Palestinian moderates, the Israeli official said.
Israeli leaders will update Solana on the latest contacts between Olmert and Abbas, and the recent talks between Livni and Fayad.
The Europeans are eager to hear the Israeli and Palestinian positions ahead of the US-backed Middle East peace conference in November.
The Quartet - comprising representatives of the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia - meets in New York later this month, with November's Washington conference expected to top the agenda.
Pressure is mounting on Israel and the Palestinians to make substantial progress before the peace conference, proposed by US President George W. Bush after bloody infighting in June left Hamas in control of the Gaza Strip.
Separately, Austrian Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer will visit Israel this week to meet with Israeli leaders and tour the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem.