With Palestinian Authority elections scheduled in less than two weeks and Hamas expected to post a strong showing, US President George W. Bush called Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert Thursday and said there can be no peace with terrorist organizations.
In their first phone call since Olmert became acting prime minister after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's stroke last Wednesday night, Bush said the PA needed to prove that it would act against terrorism. He said the US was working to establish democratic institutions in the PA that would "advance peace and not terrorism," and that Hamas must change its policy towards Israel and recognize its right to exist
Aides to Olmert said the two men did not talk about a possible visit to the US by Olmert next month. Reports that Olmert had been invited to the US capital prompted an angry response from Labor MK Yitzhak Herzog, who called on the US not to intervene in Israeli elections.
A visit to the US before the March elections would likely be seen as a US endorsement of Olmert, one reason that the visit may not take place, a US official said. The official said another reason such a visit might not happen was because the administration would be loath to send out a message before Sharon's medical situation has been cleared up that it was already "writing him off."
The administration, the official said, has been "very cautious about this."
Nevertheless, there was some speculation in Jerusalem that Bush would invite Olmert after the January 25 Palestinian legislative elections to discuss the results and the ramifications on Israeli and US policy.
Bush, according to a statement put out by the Prime Minister's Office, said he intended to implement "his and Sharon's joint vision of advancing the peace process in the region."
Olmert said that while he would "do everything in his power to advance this vision," it was important that PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas take steps against terrorism and dismantle the terrorist organizations. Olmert said there could be no progress with a PA government that included terrorist organizations.
While this was the first time the two men have talked since Olmert took the reins from Sharon, they have met before. Bush recalled in his conversation with Olmert that when he came to Israel in 1998 as governor of Texas - a visit that entered Israeli political lore because of a helicopter ride he took with Sharon - Olmert, then Jerusalem's mayor, hosted Bush at City Hall, took him to the top floor and showed him a panoramic view of Jerusalem.
Bush told Olmert that "our hearts are with Ariel Sharon, his family, his friends and the entire Israeli people" and asked Olmert to tell Sharon's sons that he holds their father in high esteem and that his "friend in the US" was thinking about him and concerned about his welfare.
Meanwhile, two of Bush's emissaries, White House deputy national security adviser Elliott Abrams and David Welch, assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs, met with Israeli and Palestinian security officials Thursday to discuss the Palestinian elections and the day after.
Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz told the two he expected to see a detailed plan from Abbas the day after the election spelling out how he planned to dismantle the terrorist infrastructure.
Mofaz told the US envoys that Israel would allow east Jerusalem Arabs to vote in the elections in east Jerusalem post offices, but without the participation of Hamas. He said that if the organization, after the election, became a dominant force in the PA parliament and asked to become a part of the government, Israel would have no dialogue with it as long as it remained a terrorist group.
Mofaz also said it was impossible at this time to implement a US-brokered plan to begin running Palestinian convoys from Gaza to the West Bank, because of intelligence information that terrorist organizations want to move explosives and technological knowledge between the two areas.
Welch and Abrams are scheduled to meet separately with both Olmert and Abbas on Friday.