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(photo credit: Mark Neyman/GPO)
Speaking to journalists before his meeting with Hillary Clinton on Tuesday evening, outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said that like his designated successor Binyamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, he, too, would raise Israel's concerns on the Iranian nuclear issue during talks with the US secretary of state.
"Israel cannot tolerate a nuclear Iran, and I heard President Obama and the secretary of state say that they resolutely object to a nuclear Iran," Olmert said before having dinner with Clinton at his Jerusalem residence. "We will discuss ways in which we can ensure this."
Olmert said that he and the secretary of state would also discuss ways to advance peace between Israel and the Palestinians as part of the two-state solution.
"This is the only solution - there is no doubt - and it reflects absolutely Israel's supreme strategic interest as well as the interest of the Palestinian people," he said.
The prime minister said he would update Clinton over the Turkish-mediated peace negotiations with Syria, as well as the situation in southern Israel, stressing that Israel would continue to defend itself.
"Hamas continues, almost on a daily basis, to shoot at innocent Israelis living in the southern part of Israel," he said. "This is of course something that is totally unacceptable and intolerable to us and to everyone who lives in the State of Israel."
Clinton said that the United States and Israel faced a number of "serious challenges," and that it was important for her to engage in "in-depth discussions with Israel's leaders" on matters of grave mutual concern.
"When we sometimes discuss these serious matters of terrorism and extremism, of the threat posed by Iran's pursuit of a nuclear weapon, we can't disconnect it from what we are attempting to do, to make sure that the people of Israel have a chance to live and flourish in a safe and secure environment, and as the prime minister said, to seek a way that they can live next to their Palestinian neighbors in a safe and secure environment," she said.
Earlier, Clinton told Prime Minister-designate Binyamin Netanyahu that the US does not want to be tied to "old formulas" in moving the diplomatic process forward. Netanyahu described the meeting as "important, deep and very good."
Clinton made clear that the US had certain goals in mind for the region, but was willing to look at various ways of reaching them and was not married to any particular formula, especially since there was a recognition that the formulas of the past had failed, diplomatic sources said.
Among those goals was a two-state solution, Clinton said during a press conference after meeting with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.
However, Zalman Shoval, a top foreign policy adviser to Netanyahu, said the issue did not come up in the 90-minute Clinton-Netanyahu conversation.
Neither, he said, was the matter of settlements raised, nor was the word "Annapolis" mentioned. The Annapolis conference in November 2007, which was hosted by then-US president George W. Bush, articulated a two-state solution as a mutually agreed upon outline to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Netanyahu was joined in the meeting by two other key foreign policy advisers, Uzi Arad and Yitzhak Molho, and Clinton was accompanied by US envoy George Mitchell and American Ambassador James Cunningham.
Later, Clinton met with Defense Minister Ehud Barak.
"The main topic was Iran," and it was tackled from a number of different angles, said Shoval, who was briefed about the Clinton-Netanyahu meeting afterward.
First of all, the nuclear threat was discussed, with Netanyahu stressing the time element, and saying that while he did not dispute the US policy of engaging Iran, it was important to ensure that the Islamic republic not drag out the talks and secure nuclear arms in the meanwhile, Shoval said.
Second, Netanyahu emphasized that a nuclear Iran would completely change the whole peace process equation in the region and that more and more moderate Arab states would - out of concern for self-preservation - move into the Iranian orbit, Shoval added.
This argument contrasted with one often heard in the US that the key to neutralizing Iran was an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, Shoval said. Under Netanyahu's formulation, unless Iran's nuclear ambitions were stopped, the chances of any peace agreement would evaporate.
Netanyahu emerged from the meeting in good spirits, saying he and Clinton agreed to work in "close cooperation" and would meet soon after a new Israeli government was formed. He is expected to travel to Washington for a meeting with US President Barack Obama shortly after forming a coalition.
"We need to think creatively in order to move forward and create a different reality, both in terms of security and politically, and this is a common goal for both sides," Netanyahu said.
Clinton did not say anything after the meeting, but rather went directly to her meeting with Barak.
That meeting also focused on Iran and the Palestinians, with Barak urging Clinton to tighten the sanctions on Teheran.
"In order for the sanctions to be effective," Barak said, "it was necessary to include Russia, India and China. Only that way would it become clear to the world in a short time whether sanctions and dialogue have a chance."
In parallel with support for sanctions against Iran, "Israel was not taking any option off of the table, and recommended to other nations to act in a similar manner," Barak said.
Clinton, at the press conference following her earlier meeting with Livni, said Israel and the US shared an understanding on Iran.
"We intend to do all that we can to deter and to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons," she said. "That is our stated policy. That is the goal of any tactic that we employ."
Clinton said no one would be "confused" by the Obama administration's talk about engagement with Teheran.
"Our goal remains the same: to dissuade and prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and continuing to fund terrorism," she said.
Whatever policy the US pursues on Iran "will be done thoughtfully, in consultation with our friends and allies - most particularly Israel," Clinton said.
During the press conference, Clinton reiterated the US's commitment to a two-state solution and said Washington's assessment was "that eventually the inevitability of working toward a two-state solution seems inescapable."
Then, in what sounded like an indirect acknowledgment of Netanyahu's view on the matter, she added, "that doesn't mean that we don't respect the opinions of others who see it differently."
Regarding the Gaza Strip, Clinton said that what was needed was a durable cease-fire, but added, "That can only be achieved if Hamas ceases the rocket attacks. No nation should be expected to sit idly by and allow rockets to assault its people and its territories. These attacks must stop, and so must the smuggling of weapons into Gaza. These activities put innocent lives of Israelis and Palestinians at risk and undermine the well-being of the people of Gaza."
Clinton made clear that the US, "regardless of our political party in the White House or in the Congress, has always worked and supported the government and the people of Israel, and we intend to continue doing so.
"Now, that doesn't mean that as good friends, which we are, we might not have opinions that we will express from time to time. And certainly, having been on the receiving end, I know that Israel is not shy about expressing opinions about our policies."
Clinton also met on Tuesday with President Shimon Peres, visited Yad Vashem, and met women involved in an NGO supporting female entrepreneurs called Sviva Tomechet.
The secretary of state was scheduled to travel to Ramallah on Wednesday morning for meetings with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salaam Fayad, and to fly out of Israel in the afternoon for meetings in Europe.
Abbas will urge Clinton to pressure Netanyahu to accept the two-state solution and to stop settlement construction, a PA spokesman said Tuesday.
While Abbas is ready to deal with any Israeli leader, "we are demanding a commitment as well from the Israel prime minister to the two-state solution and to the cessation of [building in] settlements, according to the road map," said Nabil Aburdene, official spokesman and an adviser to President Abbas.
The US-backed road map peace plan calls for a halt to all settlement construction, including for natural growth.
"The president will be clear with her that we are committed to our principles, that we are committed to the road map and the Arab peace initiative and to the understanding of Annapolis," Aburdene said.
The Arab League peace initiative calls for full Israeli withdrawal from "occupied Arab lands," the creation of a Palestinian state, and a "just solution" for Palestinian refugees in exchange for full normalization between Israel and Arab states.
Abbas wants Netanyahu to understand that a "comprehensive peace and a lasting peace means sitting down at the table and negotiating all six final-status issues, seriously and without any delay," Aburdene said.
Abbas's spokesman also welcomed Clinton's comment on Tuesday that her country will be "vigorously engaged" in the establishment of a Palestinian state.
"It's a positive step from the secretary," he said. "We urge her to continue her efforts to convince the [next] Israeli government to stop the settlement activities... These are important steps to pave the way for a new process that might lead to peace."