Olmert a lame duck stretching for the finish line

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, left, and U.S. President George W. Bush shake hands Nov. 24, 2008 in the Oval Office. (Avi Ohayon / GPO)

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, left, and U.S. President George W. Bush shake hands Nov. 24, 2008 in the Oval Office. (Avi Ohayon / GPO)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Lame duck or not, Ehud Olmert is determined to make it to the finish line.

Four months after he announced his resignation and 2 1/2 months before elections are held to replace him, the Israeli prime minister insists he still expects to complete a peace agreement with the Palestinian Authority before he leaves office.

"I believe it is possible, I believe it is timely, I believe a declaration is needed," Olmert said Tuesday in Washington, a day after he met with President Bush. "I am ready to make it and I hope the other side is."

Tainted by scandal, Olmert formally resigned this summer but has stayed on as acting prime minister until his successor, to be elected in Feb. 10 general elections, can assemble a coalition government. The process is likely to leave Olmert in office until mid-March.

Candidates from Israel’s major parties have criticized Olmert sharply for maintaining intensive diplomatic negotiations with the Palestinians and, to a lesser degree, with Syria, even though he is a lame-duck leader.

Meeting with Hebrew-language reporters at Blair House, the residence for foreign leaders across the street from the White House, Olmert rejected the notion that holding such talks was "presumptuous."

"Talks with the Palestinians didn’t start recently," he said. "We’ve been speaking, at senior levels, continuously since December 2006. It’s not a matter of starting now and wondering whether we can complete a deal. We’re very close and it’s time to make decisions."

Olmert used "declaration" and "agreement" interchangeably in talking about a peace deal. It is understood that since Israel and the Palestinians launched renewed peace talks a year ago in Annapolis, Md., under U.S. auspices, the process would be concluded with a declaration of intent, not actual Palestinian statehood.

Such a declaration was imperative, Olmert said, because a "new narrative" is emerging among Palestinians that advocates for a binational state between the Mediterranean Sea and Jordan River — including Israel, the West Bank and Gaza — that effectively would spell the end of the Jewish state. Israelis should "not take it for granted" that the idea won’t gain traction in the West, the Israeli leader said.

"The dispute is not between continuing the status quo and the two-state solution," Olmert said. "The dispute is between a two-state solution and the emergence of a new narrative of one state."

Such pressure could portend new levels of insecurity for Israel and for the Jewish people, he said.

Olmert said he did not perceive substantive differences between the outgoing Bush administration and the incoming administration of President-elect Barack Obama on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations or on the policy of keeping Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

Josh Bolten, Bush’s chief of staff, was running a "comprehensive and orderly transition," Olmert said. The prime minister said he understood from his meetings with Bush, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Vice President Dick Cheney that "issues relating to Israel" were accounted for.

Olmert said the Bush administration was not interested in reaching out to Iran unless it suspended its suspected nuclear weapons program. That might not be true of Obama, he acknowledged, but said it was important to remember that Obama’s basic position was that "it is forbidden for Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon."

Should Obama suggest different tactics for containing Iran, Olmert said, it will be up to the Israeli government to make the necessary adjustments.

No one in the Bush administration is pressing Israel not to take action against Iran or refrain from acting against Hamas forces in the Gaza Strip, Olmert said. Israel has stepped up the pressure on Gaza in recent weeks while rocket attacks emanating from the territory have resumed, including tightening the blockade of the strip and conducting limited counterterrorist operations there.

Olmert defended the absolute closure of the Gaza Strip now in place, which extends even to journalists and diplomats. He said the blockade was necessary for security reasons, that Israel has "nothing to hide" and that humanitarian assistance continues.

Olmert seemed relaxed and in good spirits during the exchange with reporters, at times flashing his sharp wit. Challenged by a reporter from the giveaway Israeli daily Yisrael Hayom about his policy of not dealing with reporters from the newspaper, which is funded by right-wing U.S. casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and has promoted Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, Olmert retorted, “Until now I was not aware that Yisrael Hayom was a newspaper."

Asked whether he had regrets, Olmert said he had many but would outline them at another time.

The prime minister was scheduled to meet with American Jewish leaders and with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee before returning to Israel.

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