Lame-duck US, Israeli leaders to meet a final time
By ARON HELLER,Associated Press Writer AP - Sunday, November 23
JERUSALEM - Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert heads to Washington this week for his final meeting with President George W. Bush, two lame-duck leaders looking to leave a blueprint for fulfilling their ambitious _ but unrealized _ Mideast agendas.
The three-day visit beginning Sunday will focus on Iran's nuclear program and progress in the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks launched by Bush last year.
Bush invited Olmert to a White House meeting as part of his final round of talks with world leaders before he leaves office on Jan. 20. Olmert, who announced his plans to resign in September amid corruption charges, will step down after a successor is chosen Feb. 10.
"It's a farewell, a double farewell," said Danny Ayalon, a former Israeli ambassador to Washington. "They will try to sum up a period and cement all the understandings and agreements between the U.S. and Israel over the last eight years."
Just a year ago, Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas proudly announced the resumption of peace talks after a seven-year hiatus at a summit hosted by Bush in Annapolis, Md. The three men set an ambitious target of wrapping up a final peace deal by the end of 2008.
Despite frequent negotiating sessions, two trips to the region by Bush and eight more by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the sides have little to show for their efforts. They have acknowledged the year-end target won't be met.
With his time in power running out, Olmert has become increasingly candid, saying Israel will have to withdraw from almost all of the West Bank and parts of east Jerusalem to make peace with the Palestinians. Talk of such concessions was almost unheard of just a few years ago.
"I know that Mr. Olmert wants to leave to whomever is elected as the next prime minister the peace process in the best shape possible," said Olmert spokesman Mark Regev.
With hardline opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu leading in polls, the future of peace talks appears especially murky. Netanyahu wants to keep much of the West Bank and all of east Jerusalem _ areas captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war _ and believes peace talks should be scaled down to discussions on the Palestinian economy. That approach has been rejected by the Palestinian leadership.
Even with time running out for both Olmert and Bush, it is not too late for them to take bold actions, such as drafting a peace deal with the Palestinians _ or ordering an airstrike targeting Iran, said Avraham Diskin, a political science professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
In 1981, then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin ordered the bombing of an Iraqi nuclear reactor during an election campaign, and Ehud Barak offered the Palestinians a comprehensive peace deal as his own term came to a close in 2001, Diskin noted.
"There is super strong motivation for Olmert and for Bush to both leave their mark on history," he said.
Bush and Olmert will also tackle Iran's nuclear program, which Israel has identified as its biggest threat in light of Iran's development of long-range weapons and its president's repeated calls for the destruction of the Jewish state. A report this week by the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency said Iran was stonewalling attempts to monitor its nuclear activities.
Israel believes Iran will be capable of building a bomb by 2010.
The U.N. Security Council has imposed three rounds of economic sanctions against Iran, which insists its nuclear program is peaceful and designed to produce energy. Both the U.S. and Israel say they hope diplomatic pressure resolves the standoff, but they have not ruled out military action.
Iran could be a point of contention between Israel and Bush's successor. President-elect Barack Obama has said he is willing to hold direct negotiations with Iran, a stance Israeli leaders have strongly opposed, saying it would reward the Tehran regime for extremism.
But in what may be a sign of things to come, Israel's military intelligence chief surprisingly softened the Israeli tone this week, saying he did not strictly oppose contact between the United States and Iran.
"Engagement is not appeasement," said Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin.
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