PM: Open to negotiations with Syria, but "impossible" while they support Hamas.
By HERB KEINON
US President George W. Bush called Monday for a worldwide isolation of Iran until it "gives up its nuclear ambitions," but gave no hint of a willingness to take military steps to stop the Iranian nuclear march.
"I think it's very important for the world to unite with one common voice to say to the Iranians that, if you choose to continue forward, you'll be isolated," Bush told reporters in Washington Monday. "And one source of isolation would be economic isolation."
Nevertheless, Bush stopped short of saying that military steps should be considered in order to stop Iran, an idea Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has been hinting at in recent days, and which Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh in an interview with Friday's Jerusalem Post said was a possible option.
But while Israeli public diplomacy is increasingly hinting at a military option, Bush remained fixed on the idea of economic sanctions.
Olmert met privately with Bush in the White House Oval Office for some 50 minutes. An hour-long luncheon followed, with both Bush and Olmert joined by their senior staff.
Senior Israeli diplomatic officials said that while Iran dominated the discussions, the two men also discussed Lebanon, Syria and the Palestinians. Bush also inquired about former prime minister Ariel Sharon's health, and the state of the Israeli economy.
Bush said there needed to be consequences for Iranian intransigence, and "a good place to start is working together to isolate the country."
Meanwhile, Olmert said after his private meeting with Bush that they were in total agreement regarding the need to keep Iran from gaining nuclear capabilities.
"Iran needs to understand that there will be consequences for not agreeing to a compromise," he said. "I can't say what the consequences will be, but I support the president's tremendous efforts on this issue. I am coming away very encouraged by the discussion."
Bush said it would be "incredibly destabilizing and obviously threatening to our strong ally" if the Iranians were to achieve nuclear capabilities. He said the world needed to work in concert and present the Iranians with a clear choice.
While threatening international isolation of Iran, the president did not rule out the possibility of conducting a dialogue with the regime in Teheran.
"If the Iranians want to have a dialogue with us, we have shown them a way forward, and that is for them to verifiably suspend their enrichment activities," Bush said. "We put that proposal on the table a while back. We said that if you want to have a dialogue with us, we're willing to come to the table with the EU, as well as Russia and China, to discuss a way forward. But first, you must verifiably suspend your enrichment activities."
Olmert addressed the possibility of a US-Iranian dialogue on the nuclear issued during an interview on NBC's Today Show that aired just before his meeting with Bush, hinting that Israel would not object to an Iranian-US discussion on the matter.
"Every compromise that will stop Iran from acquiring nuclear capabilities that will be acceptable to President Bush would be acceptable to me," Olmert said, when asked how he would feel if Bush decided that the best way to deal with Iran would be to sit down and talk with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
"I'm not looking for war, not looking for confrontations, I'm looking for the outcome. This campaign will be tested in only one way, whether it will succeed in stopping Iran from possessing nuclear weapons," he said.
While there are also voices in Washington calling for the US to open up a dialogue with Syria, Bush made it clear that his policy regarding Damascus would not change unless certain criteria were met.
Bush said the US expected Syria to keep its hands off of Lebanon and let the Lebanese democracy "exist," to stop harboring extremists and to help the democracy in Iraq succeed.
"The Syrian president knows my position," he said. "Our position is very clear, and we would like to see some progress toward peace from the Syrians."
Olmert said he shared Bush's opinion regarding the Syrians, and although Israel was not against negotiating with Damascus, it must be based on a "certain reasonable, responsible policy," which Syria is note demonstrating at the present time.
"Everything that they are doing is to the other direction - in Lebanon, in Iraq and the sponsorship of Hamas and Khaled Mashaal as the main perpetrators of terror against the state of Israel," Olmert said.
Regarding the Palestinians, Olmert reiterated that he wanted to open "a serious dialogue" with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), adding: "I will make every possible effort to help Abu Mazen to get into such a dialogue with us. Indeed, we hope that the new government will be established soon on the basis of the Quartet and the road map, and that will allow an immediate contact between him and me that I'm sure will lead to extend this negotiation process."
In comments to reporters made after the meeting, Olmert did not react to the likelihood that Muhammad Shbair, the US-educated university professor, would likely be appointed the new PA prime minister, saying there was a need to "wait and see."
Senior diplomatic officials said that regardless of who would lead the PA, Israel expected that the new government would live up to the three benchmarks for international legitimacy: recognition of Israel's right to exist, forswearing terrorism and accepting previous agreements with Israel.
Olmert told reporters that Israel and the US were in agreement that these three conditions needed to be upheld.
Olmert said he and Bush exchanged ideas on how to push forward the diplomatic process with the Palestinians, but not every visit had to lead to something dramatic. He said he left the meeting with a strong sense of determination, friendship and commitment from Bush on everything that had to do with Israel.
This observation comes at a time when some are warning that the US's policy toward Israel may shift as it explores ways to gain the support of moderate Arab regimes in an effort to put together an exit strategy for US troops from Iraq.
Olmert said Bush spoke proudly of the US decision to veto a UN Security Council resolution over the weekend that would have condemned Israel for its actions last week in Gaza and Beit Hanun, where an errant artillery shell killed 21 Palestinians.
Olmert said Bush made no specific request for Israel to tone down its military operations in the Gaza Strip, a request that had been made by the EU.
Following the meeting with Bush, Olmert was scheduled to meet US Vice President Dick Cheney Monday afternoon. With Cheney a central figure in the US administration on the Iranian issue, this issue was expected to dominate those talks as well.
Olmert was also scheduled to hold separate meetings Monday with both Congressional leaders and Jewish congressmen. On Tuesday, he is scheduled to fly to Los Angeles to address the closing session of the United Jewish Communities' annual General Assembly.
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