Peretz begins watered-down US trip

Officials hail meeting with counterpart Gates, note lack of meeting with Bush, Rice.

Amir Peretz arrived in the United States for his first official visit there as defense minister Sunday morning in what has turned into a watered-down diplomatic visit, as there are much lower-level meetings scheduled with the Bush administration than those held in the past with his predecessor Shaul Mofaz. Peretz left Saturday night for Washington for a function with Congress and a meeting with US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, the first meeting between the two defense chiefs. He will lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery. On Tuesday Peretz will travel to New York where he will pay a visit to Ground Zero - the site of the World Trade Center terror attacks - and will lay a wreath there in memory of the victims of 9/11. On Wednesday morning he will meet, together with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, with United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and then attend a dinner organized by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Peretz will not meet, however, with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who will be out of the country during his visit, with President George W. Bush in South America or with Vice President Dick Cheney. Rice will meet with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni on Wednesday. Peretz's schedule for his trip was finalized only in recent days after officials close to the defense minister said he "encountered difficulty" in getting the meetings he wanted. In comparison, Mofaz consistently met with the secretary of state on his visits to the US. Mofaz most recently visited the US as transportation minister and met with Rice. "It is unheard-of that an Israeli defense minister goes to the US and doesn't meet with the secretary of state or the vice president," said a senior Israeli diplomat who is familiar with procedures in Washington. "The only conclusion is that the Americans do not take him seriously." Another diplomatic official said that the meeting with Gates should not be taken lightly and that with Iran defying the world and continuing in its race to obtain nuclear weapons, future coordination between the two countries was crucial. Peretz will be in Washington for the AIPAC Policy Conference but, unlike Livni and a number of Knesset members, he will not speak at the event's major sessions but will speak to the Minyan, the lobby group's exclusive list of major donors. Journalists and the public will not be allowed to sit in on Peretz's speech. While Peretz will not address the plenum during the conference, Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh, Labor MK Matan Vilna'i, Kadima Party MK Yoel Hasson and Likud Party MK Gideon Sa'ar will speak at major conference sessions.