JERUSALEM (May. 21)
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert faces his first major diplomatic meeting this week in Washington. Olmert left on Sunday for the United States, where he hopes to win President Bush’s backing for his West Bank withdrawal plan and close ranks on Iran’s nuclear program.
The prime minister will enjoy a blue-ribbon welcome. He is scheduled to meet Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and American Jewish leaders. He will address both houses of Congress, an honor not bestowed on his predecessor, Ariel Sharon, who visited the White House a dozen times.
Away from the ceremonies, Olmert may find U.S. support lacking for his plan to quit parts of the West Bank and annex others in the absence of peace talks with the Palestinians.
With record-low approval ratings at home, Bush’s Middle East focus is on Iraq.
“Now is not a good time for the U.S. to be dealing with the convergence plan,” wrote the Washington correspondent for Ha’aretz, Shmuel Rosner. “Olmert’s visit, after all, is far from topping the public agenda in the United States.”
A Jerusalem source said Olmert plans to present his vision as a means of defusing conflict with the Palestinians but to pledge continued commitment to the U.S.-led “road map” peace plan. “The convergence plan, like the disengagement plan, is a step closer to a two-state solution,” the source said.
Israel expects the Bush administration, troubled by the political rise of Hamas in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, to recommend that Olmert negotiate with the more moderate Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Olmert has so far shunned Abbas, arguing that talks would be pointless.
“Mahmoud Abbas was deprived of all his powers. He is powerless. He is helpless,” Olmert told CNN. “He’s unable to even stop the minimal terror activities amongst the Palestinians. How can he seriously negotiate with Israel and take — assume responsibility for the most major, fundamental issues that are in controversy between us and them?”
But the Israeli stance appears to be softening. On Sunday, Olmert’s two top deputies — Vice Premier Shimon Peres and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni — met with Abbas on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Egypt. Peres said the meeting would focus on relieving Palestinian poverty and voiced hope that it would prompt an Olmert-Abbas summit.
“Opening negotiations is the prime minister’s prerogative,” Peres told Israel Radio. “If you ask me, there should be talks.”
An issue perhaps more pressing than the Palestinians is Iran. Olmert is expected to present Bush with the latest Israeli intelligence assessments that predict the Iranian nuclear program is months away from producing a bomb.
Yediot Achronot reported that Olmert would ask Bush to “do away” with the Iranian threat during what remains of his term in office.
But with Israel having publicly backed U.S.-led efforts to curb Iran’s nuclear program through the threat of sanctions, Olmert will also be listening. And he may not hear good news.
Israel’s pensioners minister, Rafi Eitan, said over the weekend that nothing would stop Iran from becoming nuclear-armed.
“Bush is weak within the United States, and the chance of him launching an attack against Iran is slim. I don’t think sanctions will affect Iran in its quest for a bomb,” Eitan, a former spymaster, said in a speech.
“Israel does not at this time have the military-political option of attacking Iran, as the United States controls the Persian Gulf, Iran and Iraq area,” he added. “We can’t attack without Washington’s consent.”
Olmert and Bush met once before, a decade ago, as mayor of Jerusalem and governor of Texas, respectively.
The prime minister will be accompanied by his wife, Aliza.