Bush, PM downplay hope of Syria talks

Bush: All options "on the table" on Iran; Quartet postpones meeting in Egypt.

Ahmadinejad dont mess (photo credit: AP)
Ahmadinejad dont mess
(photo credit: AP)
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert emerged from more than three hours of talks with US President George W. Bush on Tuesday, confident that the developments in Gaza provided a "new opportunity." But in a press briefing after the summit, Olmert was very vague in details about how Israel would now deal with "the terrorist organization in control of a slice of territory five minutes from Ashkelon."
  • Analysis: Bush, Olmert look to bolster Abbas Both Olmert and Bush publicly said that they would move quickly to strengthen Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and moderates in the PA. Regarding how Israel would now deal with the Gaza Strip, Olmert said Israel would respond to developments as they happened, and he was not interested in spelling out how Israel would act in every situation. Olmert did say, however, that Israel would have no dealings at all with Hamas, and would make no distinction between moderate and extremist Hamas elements. The prime minister said that the arms-smuggling situation along the Philadelphi Corridor between Gaza and Egypt was no worse now than in the past, and he still felt that IDF military action there would not be "a preferred option." He said he had spoken recently with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak about the situation on the border, and hoped that the Egyptians would take "more aggressive action" to stop the weapons smuggling. Olmert said that the cabinet would discuss the release of frozen PA tax revenues held by Israel in its next meeting on Sunday. He said that despite recent developments, he did not feel the road map peace plan was dead, and he was not aware of any dramatic speech that Bush was planning on giving next week, laying out a new Middle East policy. He did not comment on reports that the US would increase aid to Israel. He said only that the issue came up in his talks with Bush, there would be a 10-year plan, and "Israel will be satisfied." Turning to Syria, Olmert said unequivocally that the US had never told him not to negotiate with Damascus. "The US never said not to hold talks with Syria," he said. "and we've never asked for their permission. Israel will not ask permission to conduct peace talks if it feels it's right, nor defend itself if it feels it's necessary." For his part, Bush said that Israel could decide for itself whether it wants to negotiate with Syria, that all options are still on the table regarding Iran, and that despite setbacks in Gaza, his vision of a two-state solution is still viable and should be pushed forward. At a brief press conference in the White House's Oval Office before meeting with Olmert, Bush said the US had no intention of interceding between Syria and Israel. "If the prime minister wants to negotiate with Syria, he doesn't need me to mediate," Bush said. "It's up to the prime minister. This man is plenty capable of having negotiations without me mediating." Syria has let it be known in recent days that it would be interested in negotiations with Israel under a Quartet or US umbrella, something that Olmert said Tuesday was unacceptable. Syria's request for such a framework has been interpreted in Jerusalem as an effort to escape international isolation. "The Syrian leader said that he is against preconditions from the Israeli side, but he is certainly for preconditions from the Syrian side. One of the preconditions is that he wants President Bush to get more involved then he already is in regional issues," the prime minister said. Olmert said that anyone who wanted to speak directly with Israel did not need US involvement. Bush and Olmert met alone at the White House for an hour and a half, and were later joined by US National Security Adviser Steve Hadley and his deputy, Elliott Abrams, as well as their Israeli counterparts. Over lunch, Bush and Olmert discussed a range of issues, including Iran, Gaza, Lebanon, Syria and bilateral US-Israel relations. Bush reaffirmed his characterization of the struggle with Hamas as an "ideological conflict," according to White House spokesman Tony Snow. Snow told The Jerusalem Post that no determination was made about a major speech on the Israeli-Palestinian issue that Bush had been expected to deliver next week. Bush and Olmert had been expected to discuss the content of any such speech during their meeting. Snow would not give any details as to gestures that the US might like to see Israel make to strengthen Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, saying that in such a meeting, "You don't issue orders." Snow characterized the conversation at the meeting as "free-flowing" and said that the two leaders have "a very good and candid relationship." As expected, both Bush and Olmert came out in full support of PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, and vowed to work with him in pushing forward the vision of a two - not a three - state solution. "We recognize the president of all the Palestinian people, and that is President Abu Mazen [Abbas]," Bush said. "He was elected, and he is the president. And, secondly, we recognize that it was Hamas that attacked the unity government. They made a choice of violence. It was their decision that has caused there to be this current situation in the Middle East." Bush said that it was his hope that Abbas "and Prime Minister [Salaam] Fayad - who's a good fellow - will be strengthened to the point where they can lead the Palestinians in a different direction." He said he would like to see a Palestinian state for both moral and practical reasons. The practical reasons, he said, were to take away a demographic challenge to Israel as a Jewish state. Bush on two occasions framed the Hamas-Fatah battle within the wider context of the ideological conflict between extremists and moderates in the Middle East, and connected it to what the US was up against in Iraq. He called it the "challenge of the 21st century." "It is interesting that extremists attack democracy around the Middle East, whether it is Iraqi democracy, Lebanese democracy, or a potential Palestinian democracy," he said. "What that should say to people all around the world is that we are involved in an ideological conflict." "It is a monumental conflict. Those of us that believe in liberty, human rights and human decency need to be in common cause to fight off the extremists and defeat them." Olmert said that he was "going to make every possible effort to cooperate" with Abbas. He said he was committed to moving forward with Abbas toward providing the Palestinians with a chance for "a state of their own," while at the same time "making sure there is security for Israel." The prime minister said there was a need to prepare the groundwork for "serious negotiations," and that the Palestinians had to fight terrorism in a way they have not done before. Olmert emphasized the "brutality and viciousness" that the Palestinians were displaying toward one another in Gaza. He said Israel had "been very, very attentive to the humanitarian needs of Gaza." "Israel will not be indifferent to the human suffering in Gaza," Olmert said, adding that it would do everything necessary to meet the humanitarian needs in the Strip. Regarding Iran, Bush did not rule out a military option, saying bluntly, "My position hasn't changed, and that is that all options are on the table." While saying that he hoped the problem could be solved diplomatically, Bush said that he fully appreciated Israel's concerns. "I fully understand the concerns of any Israeli who hears the voice of the man in Iran, who says on the one hand, 'We want to acquire the technology in order to build enriched uranium, which can be converted into a nuclear weapon,' and on the other hand, 'We want to destroy Israel.' I think that if I were an Israeli citizen, I would view that as a serious threat to my security. And as a strong ally of Israel, I view that as a serious threat to its security," Bush said. In his briefing to reporters, Olmert dodged a question about whom he would offer the Finance Ministry to, saying he didn't want to deal with coalition politics while in the US. Asked specifically if he would offer it to opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu, he said that the situation in Gaza necessitated a different set-up, but was non-committal about the possibility of working to bring Netanyahu into the government as finance minister. Meanwhile, a meeting of the Quartet scheduled for next week in Egypt will likely be put off after some partners asked for a delay following Hamas's takeover of the Gaza Strip, top Arab diplomats said. Quartet negotiators, including the United States, were scheduled to meet in Egypt on Monday to probe the possibility of reviving a Middle East peace initiative that was relaunched at an Arab summit in Saudi Arabia in March and includes a land-for-peace proposal with Israel. They were expected to meet with an Arab League delegation, called the Arab Quartet, to push forward the peace efforts. "There are some doubts that the meeting will be held now. Some members have asked for a postponement," a senior Arab diplomat told The Associated Press. The diplomat also refrained from naming which members of the Middle East Quartet - which along with the United States includes Russia, the United Nations and the European Union - asked for the postponement. Later, a spokesman for the Egyptian Foreign Ministry confirmed the request for postponement and said it was due to the events in Gaza. "There is a tendency to postpone [the meeting] until things are clear with the Palestinians and in the Palestinian-Israeli relations," Alaa el-Hadidy said in a statement. In Brussels, an EU official confirmed the meeting might be put off or held in another location. The Quartet was to hold consultations by telephone later Tuesday to decide how to proceed in view of the latest developments in Gaza and the installation of a new Palestinian government, the official said. The original reason for holding the gathering in Egypt was to give Quartet members an opportunity to meet jointly with the Arab Quartet, Israel and the PA, the official said. But due to the "dynamic changes on the ground," it might be more useful for the Quartet representatives to meet separately first to coordinate their stance, the EU official said. The recent Hamas-Fatah clashes and the split between a Hamas-controlled Gaza and a Fatah-dominated West Bank dealt a major blow - if not a death knell - to months of attempts by US Arab allies Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia to unify the Palestinians and allow a resumption of the peace process with Israel. A diplomat for the Arab League, which is based in Cairo, expressed regret over the postponement. "We hope that a new and near date will be fixed. The meeting is important," said Hesham Yusuf, a senior aide to the League's Secretary-General Amr Moussa. Israel had hoped that the meeting in Egypt would bring together Israeli officials with representatives of the 22-member Arab League. Hilary Leila Krieger and AP contributed to this report.