President Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert before joint press conference at White House yesterday (White House photo)
JERUSALEM – President Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert are in “full agreement” regarding methods to confront Iran’s suspected nuclear program, both leaders said yesterday at a joint press conference in Washington.
But Bush stopped short of endorsing Olmert’s plan to withdraw from most of Judea and Samaria, which borders Israel’s major population centers, downgrading the proposed evacuation to a “bold [idea]” that “could be an important step” toward peace. Still, the Israeli media today largely claimed Bush is in support of the withdrawal.
Olmert had sought U.S. recognition for new borders he wishes to create after implementing his evacuation, and, according to sources in Olmert’s office, had hoped to gain American financial support for the withdrawal plan.
Olmert, speaking to reporters following his White House meeting with Bush, said he believes Iran will cross “the technological threshold” on its path to nuclear capability in about a year. The Israeli leader expressed concern over Iran’s nuclear ambitions, insisting it was not too late to prevent the Islamic republic’s atomic program.
Olmert said he was “very satisfied” with the discussion he held with Bush on Iran.
“We extensively discussed the Iranian issue,” Olmert said. “There is a full understanding between the president and myself on how to deal with this matter.”
Bush, for his part, termed efforts to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons “a common international goal. We determined that the Iranian regime must not obtain nuclear weapons.”
The U.S. president said his administration will continue to pursue a diplomatic solution to the nuclear stand-off.
“Obviously we’d like to solve this issue peacefully and diplomatically, and the more the Iranians refuse to negotiate in good faith the more countries are beginning to realize that we must continue to work together,” Bush said.
“We’re spending a lot of time working with our Russian friends in particular to make it clear to them that Iran is showing no good faith. …We’re on the cusp of going to the Security Council.” said Bush.
Russia and China, permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, have said in recent months they are reluctant to impose stronger measures on Iran, including sanctions.
In an indirect reference to Iran, Bush announced the U.S. would “come to Israel’s aid” in the event the Jewish state it attacked.
Earlier this week, Tehran tested a long-range surface-to-surface “Shahab-3″ missile, which has a range of 1,300 kilometers and could reach any target in Israel.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad last year called for Israel to be “wiped off the map” and last month termed the Jewish state a “rotten, dried tree” that would be annihilated in “one storm.”
Iran is openly defying international calls to halt uranium enrichment activities. After Ahmadinejad was inaugurated last August, the country rejected European proposals aimed at curbing its nuclear programs and resumed nuclear projects, reopening a major uranium conversion plant in Isfahan. In January, Iran escalated the international confrontation by removing U.N. seals at one of its uranium-enrichment plants and resuming nuclear research.
Bush ‘lukewarm’ toward withdrawal
While Olmert and Bush expressed agreement regarding Iran, the U.S. president treaded cautiously when it came to statements concerning Olmert’s proposed withdrawal from Judea and Samaria, territories also commonly referred to as the West Bank.
Sources close to the prime minister’s office said Olmert aimed for a full U.S. endorsement of his so-called convergence plan, including recognition of new borders he seeks to create if the plan is implemented.
Olmert ultimately wishes to secure large U.S. grant and loan packages to fund his plan, currently priced at over $11 billion, the sources said.
Financing for the plan is considered crucial for its implementation. The U.S. previously pledged to help fund Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, which was carried out this summer at a cost of about $2 billion, but little aid actually arrived. Analysts here contend the Judea and Samaria withdrawal plan could easily get stalled in the Knesset if Olmert doesn’t secure international funding to defray the costs.
But Bush’s comments regarding Olmert’s proposed withdrawal stopped short of an endorsement. While giving Olmert credit for proposing “bold ideas” that “could be an important step” toward peace, Bush stressed the U.S.-backed Road Map, which calls for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
He urged talks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and said a negotiated agreement “best serves Israelis and Palestinians and the cause of peace.”
“Our preferred option, of course, is there to be a negotiated settlement,” Bush said. “On the other hand, as the prime minister said, that if he is unable to find a partner in peace, if nothing can go forward, he is willing to think about ways to advance the process forward. … [It could be] an important step toward the peace we both support.”
Bush did not mention financial issues concerning Olmert’s withdrawal or agreement with Israel regarding new borders.
Sources in Olmert’s delegation told WND that up until the last minute before yesterday’s joint press conference, the Israeli and American teams disagreed over the wording of Bush’s statement. Olmert’s aids wanted Bush to stress the Judea and Samaria withdrawal, while the U.S. delegation, which seemed to have prevailed, wanted the President to emphasize negotiations.
“Phrases were worked in about the convergence as a gesture to Olmert for [Israeli] domestic consumption,” said an Israeli delegation source.
The sources described the U.S. attitude toward the Judea and Samaria withdrawal as “lukewarm,” explaining the White House raised a number of concerns, including the possibility a terror entity will be created in the areas evacuated; reservations expressed by Jordan, which fears a withdrawal would threaten its country; and the effects of the plan on U.S. regional interests.
A series of discreet talks between the U.S. and Israel is expected to follow Olmert’s visit. The talks are aimed at mapping out elements of the withdrawal plan and assessing the plan’s viability.
Israeli media claim Bush backs evacuation
Political sources close to Olmert’s office earlier told WND the Israeli prime minister is pressed to convince the Bush administration he has the political clout necessary to carry out his Judea and Samaria withdrawal.
“The Bush administration does not have faith that Olmert has the parliamentary coalition needed to sustain the firestorm of political activity that is sure to surround the implementation of the withdrawal,” said a political source. “They do not see him as the strongman Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was to them.”
Olmert leads a slim governing coalition of 67 out of 120 Knesset seats. Typically, Israeli governments composed of ongoing coalitions with fewer than 70 seats tend to be unstable and short-lived.
Olmert’s government relies heavily on 12 seats from the Ultra-Orthodox Shas party, which traditionally opposes land concessions and which some analysts have predicted may bolt the government as the convergence plan gets closer to implementation. Olmert may then be forced to bring Arab parties into his government or form a coalition with the Knesset’s right-wing bloc, which would likely only enter the government on condition a Judea and Samaria withdrawal is either nixed, postponed, or put to a national referendum.
While Olmert did not get an outright endorsement of his plan from Bush, the Israeli prime minister yesterday stressed to reporters Bush’s general remarks about the withdrawal, saying they were made in a “very clear and remarkable way.”
Members of Olmert’s team noted although Bush did not endorse Olmert’s plan, the president regarded it in a positive light and acknowledge it as a possible avenue in the future.
Still, the Israeli media today largely covered Bush’s statements as endorsing the Judea and Samaria withdrawal. Headlines in major Israeli dailies included, “Bush praises Olmert’s plan” and “Bush supports West Bank convergence.”