Facing Challenges, Olmert and Bush Seek to Avoid Regional Deterioration

The meeting between President Bush and Ehud Olmert was bound to be haunted by their recent troubles: Iraq for Bush, Lebanon and the Gaza Strip for the Israeli prime minister. But the most potent presence hovering over Monday’s Washington summit was not recent events but the prospect of further deterioration in the region.

Olmert came to the White House seeking reassurances about Iran and its putative nuclear program, as Israelis across the political spectrum see a nuclear-armed regime that denies the Holocaust and calls for Israel’s destruction as a mortal threat.

For his part, Bush, under new pressure to change the course in Iraq since the Republicans’ defeat last week in congressional midterm elections, had to consider how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict impacts Arab and European reluctance to help in Iraq.

Just before meeting Olmert, Bush met with James Baker, secretary of state when Bush’s father was president, and Lee Hamilton, a former Democratic congressman. The two completed a report on the prospects of resolving the Iraq quagmire.

Both Bush and Olmert needed something from the other — and after 45 minutes alone together, each emerged with gains, however modest.

Most of the discussion focused on Iran, and Olmert said he was reassured that the United States and Israel were on the same page.

“There is no question that the Iranian threat is not just a threat for Israel, but for the whole world,” Olmert said. “The fanaticism and the extremism of the Iranian government, and the fact that the leader of a nation such as Iran can threaten the very existence of another nation, as he does toward the State of Israel, is not something that we can tolerate or would ever tolerate, and certainly not when we know that he is trying to possess nuclear weapons. And I’m very encouraged by our discussion and thoughts that we have exchanged about what needs to be done in the Middle East.”

Switching to Hebrew, Olmert was more specific: There was “absolute agreement,” he said, on the need to “make every effort to stop Iran from getting to the technical stage where they can manufacture weapons.”

Ahead of the summit, Israeli officials reportedly had worried that the United States did not view the Iran problem with the same urgency. The perception was that Israel fears the moment the Iranians have the technical know-how to put together a nuclear bomb, while the Americans wouldn’t get exercised until the Iranians were close to actually building one.

Bush gained a renewed, if vague, commitment from Olmert to do his best to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

“I will make every possible effort to help Abu Mazen to get into such a dialogue with us,” Olmert said, using Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ nickname.

Addressing the Hebrew-speaking press after the meeting, Olmert provided more details: He was ready to allow forces in Jordan loyal to Abbas, a relative moderate from the Fatah Party, to move to Gaza to help Abbas face down “the tensions with Hamas,” the Islamist terrorist group that runs the P.A. Cabinet and legislature.

Olmert’s relief after the meeting was tangible. Told he was repeating the phrase “excellent feeling” that he had used after his previous summit with Bush in May, he said, “Well, this is an even more excellent feeling.”

Israelis had been concerned that after his Republican Party lost control of Congress last week, Bush might consider calls to conciliate Iran as a way of tamping down violence in Iraq.

The Baker-Hamilton recommendations have yet to be published, but reports suggest that outreach to Iran is high on their list. Iran has considerable influence with Shi’ites in Iraq, and the intractable violence in Iraq played a role in Democrats’ wins last week in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.

Olmert insisted to reporters that Bush had hardly raised concerns about Israel’s handling of the war with Hezbollah this summer, which left the Iranian-backed Lebanese terrorist group battered but intact; nor, he said, did Bush critique Israel’s retaliation in recent days against terrorists in Gaza launching rockets into southern Israel, even though 19 Palestinian civilians were killed in one errant Israeli strike.

Olmert handed Bush another bone, rejecting speculation in the New York Times that Israel viewed the Bush administration’s goal of democratizing the Middle East as naive.

“We in the Middle East have followed the American policy in Iraq for a long time, and we are very much impressed and encouraged by the stability which the great operation of America in Iraq brought to the Middle East,” Olmert said after the meeting “We pray and hope that this policy will be fully successful so that this stability which was created for all the moderate countries in the Middle East will continue.”

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