The idea of the US accepting 100,000 Palestinian refugees as part of a Middle East peace agreement was suggested by extremely senior figures in the Bush administration, not by Israel, sources close to former prime minister Ehud Olmert told The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday.

The reference to “extremely senior figures” is assumed to relate either to president George W. Bush himself or to his secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice.

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The sources spoke to the Post after Bush’s national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, said that the administration envisioned that the US would participate in refugee resettlement activities, but could not have known in advance how many refugees the US might have been able to take in.

In a speech in Tel Aviv on Sunday, Olmert said he had reached an agreement with the US on accepting 100,000 refugees. Hadley’s former deputy, Elliott Abrams, denied this on Monday.

According to Hadley, the Bush administration discussed with Israel how the international community could assist in implementing a peace agreement, including how it could help the Palestinian refugees. Ideas discussed included compensation to refugees or to countries such as Jordan and Lebanon that would take them in, and aid in resettling refugees outside the Middle East who wanted to leave the region.

“In that connection, we envisioned that the US would participate in any refugee resettlement activities, along with others in the international community, but that anything the US would do would be done through our normal immigrations process,” Hadley said.

“Therefore, there is no way to know in advance the number of refugees that the US might have been able to take, should any refugees have wanted to come to the US.”

When he spoke, Hadley was unaware of Abrams’s flat denial.

“President Bush did not, I am sure, promise or pledge to take 100,000 Palestinian refugees,” Abrams said. “The president knew, as everyone in the White House knew, that no president has the power to make such a commitment.

“We have immigration laws and they don’t allow that kind of move by a president. He would have had to ask Congress to change our laws.

Moreover, we would never have committed to a specific number anyway, nor did Olmert ask us to or raise that number.”

Olmert’s office reacted to Hadley’s comments the same way it reacted to Abrams’s – by saying that the commitment was made at a higher level.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on Tuesday defended Defense Minister Ehud Barak from Olmert’s attacks on him that the former premier delivered in a speech Sunday and in a book he is writing.

Olmert had accused Barak of undermining military operations for political reason, and said Barak had begged to join Kadima and replace Amir Peretz as defense minister, even though he was officially out of politics.

“Such regrettable statements are uncalled for,” Netanyahu said. “I suggest lowering the flames.”

After a few days in which no Labor MK defended Barak, Labor MK Shelly Yacimovich, who is herself very critical of Barak, issued a strongly-worded attack on Olmert.

“I think it’s unbelievable chutzpah that a man who was removed from politics in shame because he was corrupt and is now on trial on serious charges, allows himself during his trial, while his fate is up in the air, to sit and write his memoirs,” she said.

Labor Party director-general Weizmann Shiri called Labor ministers who refused to defend Barak “cowards.”

Barak’s deputy at the Defense Ministry, MK Matan Vilna’i, questioned why Olmert did not do anything about his criticism of Barak when the defense minister served under him.

Vilna’i, meanwhile, raised eyebrows when he suggested at a parlor meeting that running jointly with Kadima was one of the options Labor could consider. Kadima officials immediately responded that their party would not be a fallback plan for Laborites looking for jobs.

Kadima leader Tzipi Livni met with her nemesis, MK Shaul Mofaz, at her initiative, at a Jerusalem humous restaurant following Tuesday’s Knesset Foreign and Affairs and Defense Committee meeting.

Spokesmen for both politicians said that after years of animosity between the two, the meeting went very well.

Hilary Leila Krieger contributed to this report.

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