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(photo credit: AP)
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert returned to Israel from the US on Friday morning and, echoing the previous day's remarks by Defense Minister Ehud Barak, hinted that Gaza's day of reckoning was fast approaching.
"We are constantly evaluating between the possibility [of a deal] to reach complete quiet and the lack of a possibility of reaching such an agreement," he said. "The absence of the latter option will draw us closer to an operation that will be much harsher and tougher against the [terror] groups."
"According to the information we have now, the pendulum is closer to a decision to embark on a harsh operation in the Gaza Strip than it is to an agreement with the terror organizations," continued Olmert.
Olmert's comments came a day after Amnon Rozenberg, 51, a father of three, was killed by a Gaza shell that hit the Nirlat paint factory at Kibbutz Nir Oz. The Security Cabinet is set to convene on Tuesday to discuss a response to the incessant attacks from Gaza.
Olmert told an Israel Radio reporter that Israel was exploring all the options available in order to achieve complete quiet for southerners without the need to enter into a violent and severe confrontation with terror groups in the Strip, adding, however, that there was a distinct possibility Israel would need to embark on an offensive and extensive operation against Palestinian terror groups.
The Prime Minister's Office expressed satisfaction with the results of Olmert's US trip and said it was convinced Israel managed to bring about a change in the US position regarding the Iranian nuclear issue, Army Radio reported.
Iran was the focus of Wednesday's talks between Olmert and US president George W. Bush, with Olmert saying that Bush had answered many of the questions he'd had about the US path, determination and time frame on Iran. He told reporters after meeting with Bush in the Oval Office that "every day we are making real strides towards dealing with this problem more effectively."
At Ben Gurion Airport Friday, when asked by a reporter about the investigation currently underway against him, Olmert simply said, "I will talk about my political future at the right time."
On Thursday, Olmert said that Israel was inching toward using military force against Hamas in Gaza because Egyptian cease-fire efforts there were not "ripening."
"As it looks now, it's closer to a military operation than to another arrangement," he told reporters. The reason is because Egyptian peace efforts "are not ripening in a way that can bring a cease-fire," he added.
On Thursday, Olmert met with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and spoke by phone with presumptive presidential nominees Barack Obama and John McCain. He also spoke with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.
According to his office, discussions centered on the situation in Gaza and the Iranian threat.
Olmert's legal and political travails were pushed into the background during his three days in the US, where he received four standing ovations during a speech to pro-Israel supporters and where Bush warmly saluted him twice publicly as "my friend" in less than a minute before they met in the Oval Office.
Olmert called Iran "the main threat to all of us" ahead of his meeting Wednesday with Bush and later told reporters that it dominated the leaders' discussions.
Bush sought to reassure Israelis who are worried about the US commitment to keeping Iran from obtaining a nuclear bomb.
"Iran is an existential threat to peace," Bush said. "It's very important for the world to take the Iranian threat quite seriously, which the United States does."
Before their meeting, Olmert grinned as Bush spoke and then effusively praised the president's speech last month before the Knesset, widely interpreted as favoring Israelis over Palestinians in their long-running dispute. It was, Olmert said, "the best expression of the United States' commitment to the security and the well-being of the state of Israel."
Hilary Leila Krieger contributed to this report
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