PM resignation overshadows US talks

Despite news in Israel, Mofaz spent Thursday in Washington discussing regional strategy issues.

Mofaz 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Mofaz 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Amid swirling political challenges back home, Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz spent Thursday focused on Israel's regional challenges as he led the US-Israel strategic dialogue. The hours-long meeting focused primarily on Iran, but touched on threats including Hizbullah and Hamas. It came at the tail end of a flurry of meetings between Israeli ministers and their US counterparts which were largely overshadowed by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's announcement that he would be stepping down in September. Mofaz, one of the leading candidates to replace Olmert as head of the Kadima party, was able to bolster his security credentials - one of his key strengths - in his meetings with top US officials. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak were also in town this week, though only Mofaz was still in Washington on Thursday. The strategic dialogue was led on the US side by Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns. After that, Mofaz had meetings scheduled with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Vice President Richard Cheney and National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley running into Friday. The Israeli Embassy in Washington put out a statement Thursday following the meeting saying that the US and Israel "share deep concern about Iran's nuclear program, and the two delegations discussed steps to strengthen diplomatic efforts and financial measures to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapons capability. We also reaffirmed our strong mutual determination to counter Iran's support for terrorism." Israeli officials were quick to stress Thursday that Israel's policies and commitments on strategic issues, including negotiations aimed at peace with the Palestinians and Syrians, would remain on track. But the leadership transition raises questions about Israel's ability to contemplate major diplomatic moves. The Bush administration is also entering its final period in office, finding its policies and moves often overshadowed by the political process of electing a successor, which many observers have suggested constrains its ability to act on threats such as that posed by Iran. The administration has, though, stressed the importance of maintaining Israel's qualitative military edge, particularly as Teheran presses ahead with its nuclear program. US Defense Secretary Robert Gates repeated that pledge following his own conversations with his Israeli counterpart. Barak said on Tuesday that the Pentagon had agreed to bolster Israel's early warning systems for incoming long-range missiles. Gates, for his part, said at a press conference Thursday: "We have looked at a whole series of enhancements to Israel's defense. And we are looking toward greater cooperation with them in terms of providing some additional capability."