PM: Peace deal with Palestinians soon

Olmert: In principle nothing prevents us from reaching agreement; says hands not tied on Iran.

OLMERT BUSH 248  88 (photo credit: AP)
(photo credit: AP)
It will soon be possible to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Tuesday, the morning after a farewell visit with US President George W. Bush and other administration officials who conceded a deal was not likely to materialize in the short term. "In principle there is nothing to prevent us from reaching an agreement on the core issues in the near future," Olmert said during a briefing with Israeli reporters. "I believe it is possible. I believe it is timely. A declaration is needed. I am ready to make it. I hope the other side is." He also stressed the US had not tied Israel's hands when it came to military operations in the waning days of the Bush administration, despite media reports to the contrary. "I don't remember that anyone in the administration, including the last couple of days, advised me or any of my official representatives not to take any action which we will deem necessary for the fundamental security of Israel, and that includes Iran," he said, in response to a question from The Jerusalem Post. He pointed to conversations with Bush and his deputies who are "so open, so candid, so personal, that they can say to me anything they feel, and they do... This was not one of the things they said." Speaking generally about his meetings with Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and others, Olmert also said, "There is a deep, basic understanding between us about the Iranian threat and the need to act in order to remove that threat." There has been speculation that if Israel were going to attack Iran's nuclear sites it would do so before President-elect Barack Obama takes office on January 20. Time magazine also reported that the US had told Israel to refrain from a major invasion of Gaza, despite renewed rocket fire from the Strip, so as not to disrupt peace talks. But when it came to the Palestinians, during the briefing and in remarks before his meeting with Bush, Olmert focused on the possibility of reaching an agreement rather than on the renewed violence. The prime minister said there wouldn't be any written declaration of principles or other document spelling out the intermediate steps taken and agreements reached to date to prepare for a new American administration, because he was looking for a comprehensive peace deal. "You don't need months to make a decision," he said, noting the two years of intensive meetings with the Palestinians that he's overseen. Ahead of their meeting and private dinner Monday night, Bush also focused on the peace process. "We strongly believe that Israel will benefit by having a Palestinian state, a democracy on her border that works for peace," the president said, sitting beside Olmert in the Oval Office. "That vision is alive because of you." The two leaders exchanged expressions of friendship and appreciation, with Olmert praising Bush for removing the threat of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein from Israel's eastern front. But Rice acknowledged earlier this month that the goal of a peace deal by the end of 2008, set at the Annapolis conference officially launching negotiations last year, was unachievable. Still, the subject was a major focus of Olmert's discussions with the secretary of state. "There are a number of issues that Prime Minister Olmert and the secretary discussed, obviously the Annapolis process being the key element," said Deputy State Department spokesman Robert Wood after their meeting Tuesday. It was a follow-up to talks Olmert held with Rice and National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley a day earlier. Olmert also said the economic crisis was a key point of discussion, though he didn't expect it to affect the $30 billion in military aid Israel is slated to receive from the US over the next decade. "We have an agreement with the United States for 10 years and no one has any doubts that it will be fulfilled," Olmert said. "America is wealthy, powerful and has integrity. No one has hinted this is up for discussion." He said the meetings also didn't touch on talk that the US might open a low-level interests section in Teheran to reenergize diplomatic efforts to limit its nuclear program. "This government has no interest in relations with Iran," Olmert said. Though Obama has indicated he favors engagement with the Islamic republic, Olmert said Israel would wait to see what he proposed before reacting. He said Obama shared the position that a nuclear-armed Iran was unacceptable. Olmert didn't speak with Obama while in the US, noting that Obama has pointed out that there's only one president at a time and that meeting with foreign leaders wouldn't be appropriate at this point. But the prime minister did speak to Obama by phone soon after his victory to congratulate him, reporting that "there's a comprehensive and orderly transition [being prepared], and this includes on issues related to Israel." Obama has called for more intense efforts to promote the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and pledged not to wait until late in his term, as Bush did, to step up engagement on the issue. In his conversation with reporters, Olmert also made the case for a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. "The dispute is not between continuing the status quo or a two-state solution," he warned. "The dispute is between a two-state solution and the emergence of a new narrative - of one state."