- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 24, 2006

AMMAN, Jordan.

The two-day Petra peace conference to find a peaceful solution to the longstanding Arab-Israeli conflict almost ended on a good note with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas kissing, hugging and agreeing on a date for a future summit. But then Mr. Olmert spoke.

Mr. Olmert upset many of his Jordanian hosts at the close of the Nobel laureates conference in Petra, Thursday, when he delved into a long diatribe, based on what was basically stock Likud policy regarding the occupied Palestinian territories, much to the embarrassment of some Jordanian officials. Saying he had changed, Mr. Olmert spoke at length about the historic land of Israel and the painful concessions Israel must make in exchange for peace. Yet, what many in the audience heard seemed destined more for a political campaign rally than a conference looking for an exit from the unending cycle of violence the way a drowning man gasps for fresh air.

“We firmly and definitely have the historical rights to the land between the Jordan and the sea,” said the Israeli prime minister — words perceived as out of place at a gathering meant to create rapprochement between the Arabs and Israelis.

“Scratch the surface just a bit and his true colors come quickly through,” said a young Jordanian artist, referring to the prime minister’s political leanings. She was one of several Jordanians who said they almost walked out as Mr. Olmert spoke. She said they refrained from doing so out of respect for King Abdullah II, the meeting’s organizer. The king did not attend this particular session, but had earlier in the morning hosted Mr. Olmert and Mr. Abbas at a closed-door breakfast.

What angered most Jordanians and other Arabs in the audience was what one Jordanian termed “Olmert’s arrogance.”

“Peace is certainly not for tomorrow,” said one observer, sarcastically.

The tone of the meeting seemed to be suddenly changed by a question from Elie Wiesel. The Nobel Peace Prize winner, who moderated this session, asked the Israeli prime minister about comparisons between the hatred of Jews in Palestinian school textbooks, and according to Mr. Abbas, hatred in Israeli schoolbooks too?

Mr. Olmert called the comparison inappropriate and said that you could not compare the two. “To draw any comparison between Palestinian and Israeli textbooks is inappropriate,” he asserted, going on to describe Palestinian schoolbooks as “filled with hate and vicious cartoons.” Asked if he thought there could ever be peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis, Mr. Olmert replied, “There is nothing we want more than to bring peace to our people.

“We really want to change the Middle East,” said Mr. Olmert. “There is nothing I want to achieve more than peace.” But he stressed he would fight terrorism.

Still, in comparing the current relations between Palestinians and Israelis, Mr. Olmert said, “In comparison with the past this is a serious step forward.” But the Israeli prime minister turned forceful regarding Hamas, the radical Islamist faction that now controls the Palestinian government and still refuses to recognize Israel’s right to exist. “You have to stop them, not just talk about it,” said the premier.

However, Mr. Olmert saved his harshest comments for Iran and the Islamic republic’s attempts at acquiring nuclear weapons. “There is one issue where I entirely lose all sense of humor,” said Mr. Olmert. “When I see a leader of a nation who stands up publicly and says that he wants to wipe Israel off the map, and at the same time he makes efforts to possess nuclear capability, I have no sense of humor. When someone threatens to wipe the Jews off the map, you have to take him very seriously. And when the same one also wants to possess nuclear capability, and build up ballistic missiles and declare that he will use these missiles … the chance of Iran having a nuclear weapon is absolutely, totally intolerable.”

In what was perhaps the clearest indication regarding Israel’s intended policy regarding Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Mr. Olmert said he supports the efforts of President Bush and the Europeans and the U.N. Security Council to make every possible effort to stop the Iranians from possessing nuclear weapons. “And I am certain they will succeed,” said Mr. Olmert.

It was a strange ending for a peace conference.

Claude Salhani is international editor for United Press International.

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