WORLD / Middle East

West Bank plan, Iran top Olmert's US visit agenda
Updated: 2006-05-23 14:05

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert holds talks at the Pentagon and White House on Tuesday, seeking during his first visit to Washington to coordinate policy on the Palestinians and the Iranian nuclear crisis.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert opens the weekly cabinet meeting at his Jerusalem office May 21, 2006. [Reuters]

Olmert's meeting with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld will provide an opportunity to exchange assessments about Tehran's uranium enrichment program, which both the United States and Israel fear could lead to a nuclear-armed Iran.

"I don't want to go into details," a senior Israeli official said about planned discussions on Iran. "I can tell you that the coordination we had in the past is going to continue and probably improve."

Israel, the only nuclear power in the Middle East, has said it wants to take a back seat in international diplomatic efforts to resolve the Iranian crisis but views seriously Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's calls for its destruction.

Olmert, who took over from Ariel Sharon after the Israeli leader suffered an incapacitating stroke in January, had dinner on Monday with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to prepare for his meeting with President George W. Bush.

No major decisions are expected: Olmert's "convergence" proposal to reshape the Jewish settlement map in the occupied West Bank is still largely on the drawing board.

Senior U.S. officials said Bush will be hesitant to embrace Olmert's ideas until he is convinced that what he proposes will not prejudice the outcome of eventual final-status talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

Under his West Bank plan, Olmert intends in the absence of a Palestinian peace partner to remove isolated Israeli settlements in the territory, bolster major enclaves Israel says it intends to keep forever and set a border by 2010.

Olmert has said he prefers a negotiated agreement with the Palestinians but peace hopes have dimmed since the Islamic militant group Hamas took power in March after crushing moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah faction in a January election.

Gun battles between rival Palestinian groups in Gaza have also clouded prospects for resuming peacemaking.


Washington wants Olmert to try to negotiate first with Abbas. Olmert, elected prime minister in March, has agreed to talk with him but says the Palestinian leader is powerless while Hamas is in charge.

Abbas "said after the (Palestinian) election he would dismantle the terrorist organizations -- there would be one gun, one government, one rule," the senior Israeli official said. "Fine -- start."

Israel's ambassador to Washington, Danny Ayalon said an Olmert-Abbas peace summit was not on the agenda for Tuesday's talks in Washington.

"What is being discussed is the internal Palestinian situation, how it affects the chances of advancing toward a peace settlement," Ayalon told Israel Radio by telephone.

Palestinians have condemned the proposed Israeli go-it-alone steps as an attempt to annex land and deny them a viable state.

The plan could also spell the end of a peace "road map" Bush and the European Union have championed as a blueprint for negotiations and establishment of a Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel.

Israeli officials say that putting Olmert's plan into motion will be a gradual process. Weakened politically by an unpopular war in Iraq, Bush also seems unlikely to embark on a new Middle East diplomatic venture any time soon.

Olmert "needs to convince the United States ... that we exhausted all opportunities and that there's nothing else, and we have to go for this unilateral disengagement," one Israeli official said.