Olmert in US: Fewer questions remain on Iran

Following meeting with Bush, Olmert tells reporters strides being made every day to deal with problem.

bush and olmert 224.88 (photo credit:)
bush and olmert 224.88
(photo credit: )
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert emerged from his meeting with US President George W. Bush Wednesday saying he had "fewer questions" regarding the country's path, determination and timeframe for dealing with Iran, which was the central issue discussed. Olmert declined to give further details, but said that "every day we are making real strides towards dealing with this problem more effectively." Olmert appeared at ease following an hour-long meeting in the Oval Office which commenced with warm greetings and smiles. Bush referred to Olmert as "my friend," and Olmert praised the president for his "spectacular speech" at the Knesset last month with its expression of friendship and commitment to the State of Israel. Sitting at Olmert's side, Bush declared Iran "an existential threat to peace." "[It's] very important for the world to take the Iranian threat seriously, which the United States does," Bush said. "Iran is an existential threat to peace." His language reflected the terminology Israel uses, referring to an Iranian nuclear weapon as an existential issue. Some Israeli officials have worried that the international community does not view the Iranian threat in such stark terms, and is seeking to make sure the US is on the same page on the issue. Addressing Olmert during their extremely brief statements to the media, with no time allotted for questions, Bush said he was also "looking forward to your wisdom about, you know, how you see the Syrian issue." Israel recently announced the start of indirect talks with Damascus, which it hopes to pull away from its ties with Iran, a move that has been met by skepticism in the Bush administration and represents one of the sharper divides in the two countries' strategic perspectives on the region. The two leaders are also expected to have discussed the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian peace process, which has been a focal point of US policy since formal negotiations were re-launched at Annapolis, Maryland, in November. Despite questions surrounding the length of Olmert's tenure in office as he faces calls to resign over a swirling corruption scandal, the US administration had indicated its intention to press on with the peace process. Olmert declined to address questions on his political travails during a briefing with reporters after the White House visit, saying it hadn't come up in his talks with American officials. "The US administration is familiar with the developments and follows them, but the meeting dealt with the matters on Israel's national agenda," he said. Bush's national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, would not say whether it was a topic of discussion in private. There are hints, though, that the Bush administration understands Olmert may well be on his way out. Hadley stressed, as have other administration officials recently, that the negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians are entered into by Olmert "on behalf of the government." The implication is that the process can proceed - even succeed - without Olmert in place. Olmert, in an address to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee Tuesday night, devoted much of his speech to the peace process, earning polite applause and some silences for his positions on the Palestinians. He seemed to suggest, however, that the deadline the Bush administration has set for a deal - the end of 2008 - was not a firm one. He said an agreement with the Palestinians, "if and when it is reached," would be the result of "a serious effort to achieve a historic breakthrough in the course of 2008," but he was not specific on the time-frame. Olmert also warned of a potential major IDF operation in the Gaza Strip, another subject on the agenda for the White House meeting, which was to be followed by a private dinner with US Vice President Dick Cheney. "Israel will not be deterred from a large military operation in Gaza, if and when we come to the conclusion that this is the best way to restore calm on our southern border," the prime minister warned. His words gave added weight to widespread speculation that a military campaign might be undertaken this summer. At the same time, the US is showing signs of uneasiness with the blockade of the Gaza Strip, which has left Palestinians there on the verge of a humanitarian crisis. A State Department official told The Jerusalem Post that Israel's policy of blockading the borders "wasn't working," and indicated that this would a subject for the US-Israeli talks as well. In his AIPAC address Olmert also stressed that the Iranian nuclear threat must be stopped "by all possible means" and called for "dramatically increased sanctions." "The international community has a duty and responsibility to clarify to Iran, through drastic measures, that the repercussions of their continued pursuit of nuclear weapons will be devastating," he said, noting the close coordination of Israel and the US on efforts to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power. "Israel will not tolerate the possibility of a nuclear Iran, and neither should any other country in the free world." The Associated Press contributed to this report.