Olmert to focus on Iran in visit to U.S.

Associated Press
Date: 11-10-06

By AMY TEIBEL, Associated Press Writer

JERUSALEM - Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert goes to Washington on Sunday stripped of his key diplomatic agenda and unlikely to get much action from an equally weakened President Bush on the one item he'll focus on - Iran.

Olmert came into office in May promising a large-scale pullback in the West Bank following on Israel's unilateral evacuation of the Gaza Strip last year. But continued Palestinian rocket fire on Israel, and a summer war against Lebanese guerrillas, left Israelis with little enthusiasm for leaving big chunks of the West Bank.

Olmert has publicly shelved that program, and no sweeping vision has emerged from his office since.

The killing of 19 Palestinian civilians in Gaza earlier this week by an errant Israeli shell has also left the prime minister on the defensive.

Even before that incident, Olmert's approval rating had plunged to about 20 percent, according to a recent poll.

"Back when he went last time, he went to convince a skeptical Washington that the only good way forward is a unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank, and that's no longer on the agenda," said Cameron Brown, an international affairs expert in Israel, referring to Olmert's first visit to the U.S. in May.

"If anything, Olmert goes to Washington without much of an agenda at all."

That leaves the Israeli leader with the other key message of his May visit - the Iranian nuclear threat.

Israel considers Iran its most formidable enemy. Fears that Tehran will develop a nuclear arsenal, despite its denials, have been exacerbated by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's calls for Israel's destruction.

"The prime minister is going to be focusing on the Iranian issue - how to get the world on path with what are essentially very similar views between the United States and Israel," said Olmert spokeswoman Miri Eisin.

But that common ground might shift, now that Bush's Republican Party has lost control of Congress, some political analysts say.

"Israeli interests, at this point, rest on future decisive statesmanship and decisive action in relation to the nuclear threat of Iran," said Menahem Blondheim of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

"Without the political support at home and in his party and among the American public, a decisive military or diplomatic move (by Bush) against Iran seems less and less likely."

The Yediot Ahronot newspaper reported Friday that Olmert expects Bush to provide a "nuclear umbrella" should Iran try to attack the Jewish state.

With power swinging to the Democrats, Olmert may also see some slippage in the U.S. policy of isolating Syria, analysts say.

The U.S. military presence in Iraq was the major reason Bush fell from grace this week.

One of the heads of a group formulating a new set of recommendations on U.S. strategy in Iraq is former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, a Republican, who has questioned Bush's policy of isolating Iran and Syria. Both countries have influence with Iraqi armed groups - and also sponsor Palestinian and Lebanese militant groups that clash with Israel.

Olmert rebuffed offers by Syrian President Basher Assad after the war to relaunch long-suspended peace talks with Israel, saying Assad must first stop sponsoring Palestinian militants and Hezbollah, the Lebanese guerrilla group that Israel fought this summer.

Aides and political analysts said Bush didn't want Israel to take up Assad's offer - but now, might try to negotiate with Syria to try to pry it from Iran's orbit.

That could open the way to Israeli negotiations with Syria, which broke down six years ago.

"As long as Syria works with Iran, they use Hezbollah and Hamas and Islamic Jihad to undermine any effort to proceed with Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking," said Eytan Gilboa, a political scientist at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv. "My guess is they (the U.S.) will change policy on Syria."

Tellingly, when discussing the agenda of his U.S. trip recently, Olmert didn't specifically bring up Israel's conflict with the Palestinians, speaking vaguely of "the situation in the Middle East."

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has agreed in principle to meet Olmert, to try to get long-stalled peace talks moving, but he wants Israel to signal that he'll walk away from the meeting with concrete results, like a release of Palestinians held in Israeli prisons.

The Bush administration has also tended to distance itself from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Eisin says Olmert plans to discuss humanitarian relief for the Palestinians with Bush. But the sweep of these moves is relatively small.

But Gilboa thinks the U.S. is interested in reinvigorating Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.

"Their direction is to create a coalition of European and allied Arab states against Iran," he said. "And they hear that it will help Europe and the moderate Arab states if the United States can stand behind some new phase in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations."


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