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UN Secretary-General to Meet Israeli and Palestinian Leaders

The Secretary-General of the United Nations has arrived in Israel for separate talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders. As Robert Berger reports from VOA's Jerusalem bureau, the Middle East peace process and the fate of three kidnapped Israeli soldiers are topping the agenda.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon hopes to give a boost to the stalled peace process during a visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories. He spoke upon arrival at the airport in Tel Aviv. "The United Nations has had crucial political and operational roles in the Middle East for more than 60 years. We were there at Israel's creation and I would dearly wish to be there again when a comprehensive solution to the conflict is achieved," he said.

Mr. Ban will hold separate meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. But the Secretary-General disappointed both sides from the outset.

His decision not to meet with Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh drew angry reaction from the ruling Islamic militant group Hamas, which described it as "discrimination." Hamas agreed to share power with Mr. Abbas and other moderates in a national unity government that assumed power a week ago. The group said the new government represents the entire Palestinian people and the UN is supposed to be a non-political organization that represents all countries.

Israel, on the other hand, was hoping that Ban would boycott the Palestinian government. Israel refuses to deal with the new regime because Hamas rejects key international demands for lifting crippling sanctions--namely, renunciation of violence and recognition of the Jewish state.

Israel does not see the U.N. as a key mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a role that has traditionally been played by the United States. But Israeli officials believe the Secretary-General can play an important role in achieving the release of three kidnapped soldiers-one held by Hamas in Gaza and two others held by Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Defense Minister Amir Peretz made that clear when he greeted MR. Ban at the airport. Peretz said Israel is confident that Mr. Ban will do everything he can to implement U.N. Resolution 1701 which calls for the return of the captive soldiers to their homes in Israel.