June 8, 2008
Olmert in D.C.: Iran talk, not goodbyes
WASHINGTON (JTA)—Expressions of love, walks down memory lane, even the rain lashing the capital’s monuments.
The latest meeting between Ehud Olmert and George Bush played out like the end of a movie romance. Only the Israeli prime minister says he’s not going anywhere because there is work to be done, especially when it comes to facing down Iran.
“I came in with a number of questions regarding this complex issue and I came out with a lot fewer,” Olmert said of Iran’s suspected nuclear program after meeting last Wednesday with President Bush at the White House.
Bush is increasingly perceived as a lame duck, and Olmert is dogged by corruption investigations and calls from his governing coalition to step down. So it follows that much of the prime minister’s visit this week had a melancholy tone.
In his speech last week to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee annual policy conference, Olmert even said he had thought twice about whether to attend.
“Given the recent political developments in Israel, of which I am sure you are all aware, I hesitated as to whether it was the right time and the right thing to leave everything behind and meet with you today,” he said.
Before Olmert’s meeting with Bush, the two leaders traded fond memories, particularly of the president’s 60th anniversary visit last month to Israel.
“From a personal point of view, I can only say that I admire your friendship and your commitment, and your emotions as they were expressed in such a powerful manner in your visit to the State of Israel,” Olmert told Bush in the Oval Office as their gazes locked. “You are loved, you and Laura, very much. And part of my mission is to make you feel this way.”
An hour or so later, Olmert made his way across Lafayette Square through a thunderstorm to Blair House, where state visitors stay. He was all business, especially the business of keeping Iran from getting a nuclear bomb.
Olmert said he and Bush discussed “means, ways and a timetable” in getting Iran to end its suspected program.
“Each day that passes we take another step to deal with this effectively,” Olmert told reporters after the meeting. “The United States is not just a partner but the leading factor in these efforts.”
He would not provide specifics beyond his challenge in his AIPAC speech to the international community to end the sale of refined gasoline to Iran, which would sow unrest in an economy in which the product is heavily subsidized, as well as to ramp up banking sanctions. AIPAC is backing such efforts in Congress.
Asked particularly about reports that he is urging Americans to lead a blockade of Iranian ports, Olmert would say only that “it is important to tack action not just through the U.N. Security Council. Nations can also take steps.”
Bush and Olmert also discussed Israeli-Palestinian talks. Olmert would not offer an assessment of talks that have been famously leak-proof, saying it would be “impetuous” to declare a deal at this point. He sounded a cautious note about striking a deal before year’s end.
“I hope we can make the timetable we hoped for—hoped for, not committed to,” he said.
Olmert was hopeful as well that Egyptian-brokered efforts to arrive at a cease-fire with Hamas in the Gaza Strip would achieve results, but said Israel was ready to launch a major military operation if it did not.
Olmert and Bush also discussed recently renewed talks with Syria, which Bush administration officials have not heartily endorsed, believing Syria to be too entrenched in the Iranian sphere.
Those talks have yet to be fully embraced by the pro-Israel community. Olmert said he hoped that would change after his AIPAC speech and a closed meeting with the lobby’s leaders.
“I said things in that meeting that cannot be mistaken,” he said.
Olmert said he was impressed by all three presidential candidates, who spoke at the AIPAC forum, and their commitment to Israel and isolating Iran. He also said he focused in all his talks on campaigning for the release of three Israeli soldiers held captive by terrorists in Lebanon and Gaza.
Commenting on the prospects of his government while visiting Washington would be “inappropriate,” Olmert said, adding that he did not regret coming.
“The issues are so great,” he said, “it would have been a mistake to miss it.”