Lame-duck US, Israeli leaders to meet a final time
By ARON HELLER,Associated Press Writer AP - Monday, November 24
WASHINGTON - President George W. Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, two lame-duck leaders, look to their final meeting to leave a blueprint for fulfilling their ambitious but unrealized Mideast agendas.
The White House session Monday evening was expected to focus on Iran's nuclear program and progress in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
Just a year ago, Olmert and the 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 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 and have acknowledged the year-end target will not be met.
"Even though there was not an agreement by the end of the year, it is really largely because of the political situation in Israel," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters aboard Air Force One as Bush back from a summit in Peru.
Still, she tried to sound upbeat about the peace process. "It's in pretty good shape," Rice said.
With his time in power running out, Olmert has become increasingly candid, saying Israel will have to withdraw from almost all the West Bank and parts of east Jerusalem to make peace with the Palestinians. Talk of such concessions was virtually 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," spokesman Mark Regev said.
Bush, who spent the weekend in Peru at a meeting of Pacific Rim nations, invited Olmert to Washington as part of his final round of talks with world leaders before he leaves office Jan. 20. Olmert, who announced plans to resign in September amid corruption charges, will step down after a successor is chosen Feb. 10.
With hardline opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu leading in Israeli polls, the future of peace talks appears 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.
As for Tehran's nuclear program, Israel has identified it as the 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 past week by the 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 penalties 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 have not ruled out military action.
Olmert often speaks of the close personal friendship he has developed with Bush over the past three years. When Bush visited Israel in May, Olmert showered the president with praise, saying, "You're a great person, you're a great leader, and you're a great friend."
Though largely unpopular internationally, Bush is loved in Israel, where he is seen as a staunch defender of the U.S. ally.
"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."
After Monday's meeting, Olmert and his wife, Aliza, will dine with president and first lady Laura Bush at the White House.
The two leaders also probably will discuss the global financial crisis, Israel's indirect peace talks with Syria and the future of arms and aircraft deals to Israel.
During his visit to Washington, Olmert also planned to meet with Rice, Vice President Dick Cheney, national security adviser Stephen Hadley, and congressional and Jewish leaders.
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