- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 11, 2008

TEL AVIV - Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Tuesday urged his Cabinet to work with President Bush in his final months in office to nail down a peace agreement with the Palestinians.

The reason: The next American president, whether Republican or Democrat, may not be as favorable toward Israel as Mr. Bush.

“This current administration is especially friendly, and we should not miss this opportunity; and therefore the timing has meaning,” a senior government official quoted Mr. Olmert as telling ministers during the weekly Cabinet meeting, according to Agence France-Presse.

“This won’t necessarily be the case with the next administration,” said Mr. Olmert, whose political future remains shrouded in a cloud of uncertainty amid calls for his resignation over corruption allegations.

Mr. Olmert’s remarks came just days after presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama told the annual convention of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) that he supports keeping Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel.

Mr. Olmert’s spokesman, Mark Regev, said yesterday the prime minister’s remark wasn’t a dig at the presidential contenders, who the prime minister believes will be friendly toward Israel as well.

But he added that Mr. Olmert believes that the optimum leadership constellation for Israel - both in the U.S. and in Europe - exists now.

Though some Israeli observers were reassured by Mr. Obama’s call for a united Jerusalem as part of a peace deal with the Palestinians, many see it as more election year politicking than hard policy.

“Everyone knows that Jerusalem ultimately will have to be a capital of two countries. Whoever talks about the term ‘undivided’ is using the terms of the past. I understand that he wants to get elected, but someone misled him,” said Yossi Sarid, the former head of the left-wing Meretz-Yachad party.

Mr. Obama’s overwhelmingly pro-Israel speech to AIPAC was aimed at easing concerns among American Jewish voters about his attitude toward Israel.

Mr. Obama vowed the U.S. would help defend Israel from an Iranian attack. But many Israeli analysts saw the statement as a political overture toward an important constituency.

“Obama, quite obviously, is starting his presidential campaign by gathering into his camp all those who preferred Hillary Clinton,” wrote Ofer Shelah, a columnist at the daily Ma’ariv.

“It´s also easy to cast a suspicious eye on this new Democratic candidate who is committed to bringing about a two-state solution peace deal and at the same time proclaims that Jerusalem will remain undivided under Israeli sovereignty, something that even Israeli prime ministers have learned does not go hand in hand.”

A taboo subject for Israeli politicians as little as 10 years ago, many Israelis are concluding that it isn’t necessarily in the country’s interest to retain control of the Palestinians living in East Jerusalem because they don’t want to face an Arab majority in the city over the next decade. But Mr. Obama’s remark on Jerusalem placed him squarely in the company of Israeli right-wing politicians.

“The speech was a wonderful speech,” said Yuval Steinitz, a lawmaker from the hard-line Likud party and a member of the parliament’s defense and foreign affairs committee. “The statements of both candidates are very good. We have to wait and see that they will be fulfilled in reality.”

Nimr Hamad, a spokesman for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, said last week the Palestinian Authority was not surprised by Mr. Obama’s comment because presidential candidates need to sound right-wing on Israel - or more right-wing than the Israeli right.

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