As Prime Minister Ehud Olmert reiterated nearly 10 times on Tuesday that Israel's policy on nuclear ambiguity remained unchanged, after sparking an uproar the day earlier with comments to a German television network implying the opposite, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad vowed once again that Israel would be "wiped out." Speaking on the second day of a Holocaust conference in Teheran, Ahmadinejad predicted that Israel would follow the path of the former Soviet Union.
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"The Zionist regime will be wiped out soon the same way the Soviet Union was, and humanity will achieve freedom," Ahmadinejad said at Tuesday's meeting with the conference participants in his offices, according to Iran's official news agency, IRNA.
He said elections should be held among "Jews, Christians and Muslims so the population of Palestine can select their government and destiny for themselves in a democratic manner."
Olmert told Israeli reporters at a briefing in the afternoon that his words had been taken out of context, and that if the full interview were read, it would be clear that he said that Israel would not be the first country to introduce nuclear weapons in the region, and that his opposition on the Left and the Right were taking advantage of the interview for domestic political purposes.
"Israel has said repeatedly that it will not be the first country to introduce nuclear weapons to the Middle East, and this policy has not changed," Olmert told reporters after meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in her office. With these comments, Olmert was trying to put an end to the tempest that his interview - during which he argued that a nuclear Israel did not pose the same threat as a nuclear Iran - had caused.
Questions about the interview overshadowed everything else when he met the press following two separate meetings with Merkel.
The first meeting, a three-hour unannounced session, took place close to midnight Monday when Merkel came to Olmert's hotel suite in the center of Berlin. That meeting was followed in the afternoon by another planned meeting, which lasted for approximately two hours.
Olmert said that a wide range of issues were discussed, including the diplomatic process with the Palestinians, Syria, the Iranian nuclear program, and possible sanctions against Iran.
Olmert added that the issue of loan guarantees, which he called risk insurance, that the German government provides to firms doing business with Iran was also raised in the meeting. While he did not say that the Germans had promised to end this practice, he said that 2005 had witnessed a 12 percent decline in German trade with Iran. Israeli officials put the trade total at some $4 billion.
Merkel, meanwhile, said that the international community must use all diplomatic means at its disposal, including sanctions, to stop Iran's nuclear march.
However, she made clear that from her point of view, the military option was "not on the table."
"It must be unmistakable and clear to Iran that this would not be acceptable," Merkel said of the possibility that Iran could obtain nuclear potential. She said the time has come to "not just think about, but to work on actions." Merkel opened up the press conference by strongly condemning the Holocaust denial conference being held in Iran. "I would like to make clear that we reject with all our strength the conference taking place in Iran about the supposed nonexistence of the Holocaust," Merkel said.
Merkel also said that, unfortunately, German efforts to free kidnapped IDF Cpl. Gilad Shalit had not been successful.
Regarding German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier's recent visit to Syria, which triggered criticism last week from Olmert, Merkel said that she and Steinmeier had been hoping to hear something "constructive" from the Syrians, but were disappointed.
Germany will take over the rotating presidency of the European Union at the beginning of 2007 and Merkel said that Germany would remain steadfast behind the international community criteria for recognizing the Palestinian Authority government, and remained committed to the Quartet framework. Her remarks came as increased calls were heard in Europe for new initiatives to move the diplomatic process with the Palestinians forward.
One of the new initiatives that has been mentioned lately was raised by Spain and is supposed to be discussed Thursday at a meeting of the heads of the EU states in Brussels. Olmert dismissed this initiative Tuesday, saying that he had not spoken with a single European leader who supported it.
Merkel said that Germany would use its position as president of the EU to revive the diplomatic process and move the Road Map forward. This comment did not bother Olmert who - in an apparent reference to Spain's failure to inform Jerusalem of its diplomatic initiative when it was announced last month - said that if there were any such German ideas, "we'll undoubtedly know about them before they are presented." Olmert confirmed that two top aides, Chief of Staff Yoram Turbowicz and foreign policy adviser Shalom Turgeman, had held meetings with PA officials in Ramallah on Sunday, and that contacts between his office and that of PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas continued unabated. With that, however, he did not give a date for a long awaited meeting with Abbas.
In addition to meeting Merkel, Olmert also met with German President Horst Koehler. Earlier in the day, he went to Berlin's Grunewald train station to speak in a ceremony at Track 17, a memorial to the Jews who were deported from the train station to ghettos and concentration camps in the east. He laid a wreath and lit a candle at the site.
Olmert will travel to Italy on Wednesday for a meeting with Pope Benedict XVI and Prime Minister Romano Prodi.
AP contributed to this report.