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Stepping into the heart of the wrenching American debate on Iraq, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert warned at an AIPAC gala dinner Monday night about the danger "premature" withdrawal from the country would pose for Israel.
"Those who are concerned for Israel's security, for the security of the gulf states, and for the stability of the entire Middle East should recognize the need for American success in Iraq, and responsible exit," he told the 6,200-strong audience at the lobbying organization's Washington policy conference via video link from Jerusalem.
Olmert stressed that he didn't want "to enter into American politics" with his comments and that they didn't stem from his strong personal friendship with US President George W. Bush.
AIPAC conference speeches (video)
Yet the American political system is wracked by debate over the course of the war in Iraq, with Democrats taking the lead in criticizing the administration and in many quarters calling for timelines for withdrawal. Indeed the two main speakers at the AIPAC dinner, Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, respectively demanded that America change course and stay the course on Iraq.
Olmert's comments represent a sharp departure from Israel's recent policy of saying little on Iraq and doing nothing to imply any interference in America's domestic policy. It also comes at a time when much of the American Jewish community has either backtracked on supporting the war or has been vocal in its opposition to it and Bush's efforts to send more troops overseas.
In stark contrast to Olmert's approach, opposition Leader Binyamin Netanyahu said earlier in the day that it was not "desirable or appropriate" to enter into the debate over Iraq. Netanyahu, also in Washington for the AIPAC conference, was speaking to Israeli reporters ahead of a meeting with Vice President Dick Cheney.
In the morning, Cheney addressed the AIPAC gathering himself and warned, similarly to Olmert, that "a precipitous American withdrawal from Iraq would be a disaster for the United States and the entire Middle East."
Cheney additionally argued, "It is simply not consistent for anyone to demand aggressive action against the menace posed by the Iranian regime while at the same time acquiescing in a retreat from Iraq that would leave our worst enemies dramatically emboldened, and Israel's best friend, the United States, dangerously weakened."
Olmert, speaking at 4 a.m. Israel time, also suggested that an American failure in Iraq could hinder American efforts to take on Iran. He referred to the US as the only country that could confront the Iranians, and said "the consequences of premature action in Iraq" could potentially affect the security of the Middle East, particularly "those threats emerging from Iran."
He concluded his thoughts on Iraq by saying that, "When American succeeds in Iraq, Israel is safer. The friends of Israel know it. The friends who care about Israel know it."