Seeking to ensure that President George W. Bush’s promises to Israel are transferred to the new US administration, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert left for Washington on Saturday night for his final meeting with the outgoing American leader.
“I’m sure that Prime Minister Olmert will want to talk about old times, but also [about] what the future holds,” White House Press Secretary Dana Perino said.
These are two leaders “who love their countries very much and have been victims of terrorism and share a lot of solidarity in trying to improve the world and bring peace to the Middle East,” she said.
“These two leaders have been through a lot together; our two countries have been through a lot together,” Perino said.
The visit is an opportunity for Olmert to review with Bush the pledges he has extended and the agreements he made with regard to Israel on a range of topics, including defense funding, Iran, Syria and the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, government sources in Jerusalem said.
Although the prime minister does not plan to meet with President-elect Barack Obama, he hopes to ensure through the visit that all agreements between the two countries are transferred to the new administration in an orderly way.
Specifically, Olmert will ask Bush for his assurance that when Obama takes over on January 20, the US will continue to honor the memorandum of understanding it signed with Israel last year, in which it promised a $30 billion defense assistance package over the next decade, above and beyond the annual aid package.
A government source said that while Jerusalem sought reassurances on defense funding, it felt relatively secure about the promises Bush had made in the April 2004 letter he wrote to then-prime minister Ariel Sharon.
In that letter, Bush stated, “In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final-status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949.”
The two men will also discuss ways to advance the peace process with the Palestinians in the short time that both Bush and Olmert have left in their posts, according to government sources.
Olmert will update Bush on his ongoing talks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, with whom he met prior to his departure for Washington. Olmert and Abbas plan to meet again upon the premier’s return.
Bush had hoped to oversee the conclusion of a final-status agreement between Israel and the Palestinians before he left office.
Only this month, almost a year after Bush set this goal at a conference in Annapolis, Maryland, did the White House announce that it understood such a deal would not be concluded in 2008.
Still, Olmert, who submitted his resignation two months ago in the wake of several corruption investigations, has said he intends to continue to pursue such a deal during the election campaign now under way to replace him.
Speaking about the eight years of Bush’s presidency, Perino said the US had advanced the peace process even if it failed to end the conflict.
“I think one of the things that they will talk about is how far we’ve come since 2001,” Perino said. “When the president first arrived, there was an intifada and hundreds of Israelis and Palestinians were dying needlessly at the hands of horrible violence.”
Bush was the first American president to “articulate a two-state solution and to support a two-state solution,” she said. As a result of his efforts, the international community also supported a two-state solution, she added.
“How they get to a Palestinian state could end up taking a little while longer, but you have negotiators and the Israelis and the Palestinians who recognize that there is a path forward for them to do that. So I think what the president and Olmert will want to do is to talk about how can they continue to help this process over the next two months,” Perino said.
During his three-day visit to Washington, Olmert will also meet with Vice President Richard Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and senators and congressmen.
According to Yediot Aharonot, Olmert is likely to ask Bush to pardon Jonathan Pollard, who is serving a life sentence in the US for spying for Israel in the 1980s. Among the data he passed on was information on Iraq’s missile program.
Olmert’s wife, Aliza, is traveling with him and the couple is expected to dine with Bush and his wife, Laura, on Monday night. Earlier in the day, there will be a more formal meeting between Olmert and Bush.
Also on Saturday, Abbas turned his attention to Obama.
He urged the president-elect to get involved in Middle East peacemaking immediately after taking office, and to endorse the Arab League plan that offers Israel recognition in return for a withdrawal from all territories captured in the Six Day War and a solution to the refugee issue.
“We ask Obama to become immediately involved in the peace process, and to adopt the Arab initiative,” Abbas said at an economic conference in Nablus.
The Arab League initiative was first proposed in 2002, and was touted last week by the PA in full-page ads in the Israeli press.
The Prime Minister’s Office welcomed that gesture and said the plan had already been the subject of talks between them and the Palestinians. It added that it was willing to engage in an open dialogue with its Arab neighbors on the basis of this plan.
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, chief negotiator with the Palestinians over the past year, has said that the plans positions on key issues such as final borders, the status of Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees are unacceptable.
Abbas appeared unusually bitter on Saturday, saying that Israeli actions, such as continued construction of settlements and the West Bank security barrier, contradict Israel’s declared willingness to make peace.
“These acts truly make one wonder whether they [the Israelis] mean peace or not,” he said. “Those who want peace don’t do this. They don’t build a wall or a settlement in our throats…
“We are ready to stretch out our hands in peace, but all of these acts leave hatred in one’s soul.”
AP contributed to this report