US, Israel on 'same page' on Iran

PM spokesman: Discussion with Bush enhanced understanding of threat; Rice to return in May.

olmert bush 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
olmert bush 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
Israel and the US are "on the same page" regarding the gravity of the Iranian nuclear threat and their commitment to thwart it, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's spokesman Mark Regev said Saturday night. Regev's comments come amid Israeli concern that last month's US National Intelligence Estimate, which stated that Iran stopped its nuclear weapons program in 2003, had placed Jerusalem and Washington at odds over the threat. US officials have said repeatedly that one of the main purposes of President George W. Bush's current visit to the region was to assure the US's Sunni allies of Washington's commitment to their security in light of the NIE estimate, which seemed to take a military option against Iran off the table. Bush left Ben-Gurion Airport on Friday afternoon, after a 48-hour visit to Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and went to Kuwait and then Bahrain. He will also visit the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt before returning to Washington on Wednesday. Olmert is expected to brief the cabinet Sunday on the Bush visit. While the Israeli-Palestinian track dominated the public aspect of Bush's visit here, the Iranian issue played a dominant role in the private conversations between Olmert and the US president. "We have no doubt that the US and Israel are on the same page," Regev said. "Both countries see the gravity of the threat that a nuclear armed Iran poses - and both are committed to preventing Iranian proliferation." Regev, without confirming that Israel presented Bush with any new intelligence information, said the discussions "enhanced" the two countries understanding of the situation. In Kuwait, meanwhile, Bush blasted Teheran for its destabilizing role in Iraq. "Iran's role in fomenting violence has been exposed," he said. "Iranian agents are in our custody, and we are learning more about how Iran has supported extremist groups with training and lethal aid." Regev said Iran was one of three main issues that Bush and Olmert discussed, the others being the US-Israeli bilateral relationship, and the Israeli-Palestinian track. Regarding the US-Israel relationship, Regev said it was clear from the discussions that Bush "is committed to Israel's qualitative [military] edge." Regev said he did not know whether the US's proposed $20 billion weapons deal to Saudi Arabia came up in the talks. Bush is expected to notify the Saudis when he visits Riyadh on Tuesday that he is pushing through with the deal, which includes Joint Direct Attack Munitions, commonly referred to as "smart bombs." In recent months the US and Israel have held discussions about Israel purchasing a more advanced smart bomb model than the one being provided the Saudis. On the Israeli-Palestinian track, Regev said that Bush's statement Thursday in which he laid out the basic parameters of an Israeli-Palestinian settlement were acceptable to Israel and "in accordance with the understandings between us and the US." Regev said Israel believed the statement formed a "positive conceptual framework for our ongoing discussions with the Palestinians." Bush called for a "viable, contiguous, sovereign, and independent" Palestinian state alongside an Israel with "secure, recognized and defensible borders." He specified the need for modifications of the 1967 lines and indicated a rejection of the Palestinian demand for a "right of return" to Israel for Palestinian refugees. Bilateral negotiations on the core issues - refugees, settlements and borders - are expected to begin early this week between Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and PA negotiator Ahmed Qurei. The decision to start these negotiations was made a day before Bush arrived in Israel on Wednesday. The fact that the two sides decided that Livni and Qurei would begin core issue negotiations just prior to Bush's arrival was not lost on the administration, with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice telling reporters on the way to Kuwait Friday that not only would Bush be coming back to Israel in May to participate in the 60th Independence Day celebrations, but also because this would "be another opportunity to do what he did here, which was to really give momentum to the process that Prime Minister Olmert and President Abbas are engaged in." "It's always good to have the parties know that the president is coming; that really gives them an incentive to move forward," she said. "I think you saw that this time, because when it was clear that he was coming, they met, they got their committees started, they had a very good discussion, they agreed to the biweekly meetings [between Abbas and Olmert] that they're going to have." Rice characterized Bush's statement Thursday as "essentially a summary. Many of these positions have been taken by the United States before, but I think it's the first time the president has put it together in this codified, coherent way." She said that as the bilateral process moved forward, the US wanted to see the Arab states do more and more to be supportive of the process, which is something that Bush will be discussing with the Arab states he is now visiting. But she cautioned against expecting any dramatic progress in this area. "Some of this will happen over time," she said. "You know, there isn't going to be a blinding flash in any of this - not on this trip, not on the next trip. But this is a process that's moving forward."•