- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 12, 2006

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert flew to Washington at the start of a five-day U.S. visit yesterday, armed with an agenda focusing on the Iranian nuclear threat and Israel’s relations with the Palestinians.

On the flight, Mr. Olmert repeated his view that Iran will not scale back its nuclear ambitions unless it fears the consequences of its intransigence, spokeswoman Miri Eisin said.

The Iranians “have to be afraid of the consequences if there isn’t a compromise,” she quoted Mr. Olmert as having told journalists on the flight.

Mr. Olmert, however, appeared to play down a senior official’s suggestion that Israel is preparing for a military strike against Iran’s nuclear program. Asked to comment on Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh’s remarks, Mr. Olmert replied that on such matters, “we have to be very careful about what we say,” Col. Eisin said.

Mr. Sneh’s comments were part of a pattern of heightened Israeli rhetoric on the Iranian nuclear issue. The Iranian Foreign Ministry yesterday said Iran’s military would hit back with a “swift, strong and crushing” response to any Israeli military action against it.

Mr. Olmert has said Iran’s nuclear ambitions will be the main item on his agenda in Washington. Mr. Olmert had dinner with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice last night and is scheduled to meet with President Bush today.

Israel is worried about Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s repeated calls to destroy Israel and, like the United States, does not believe Tehran’s claims that its nuclear program is intended solely to produce energy.

The United States has led international efforts to curb the Iranian nuclear program, but Israelis are concerned that U.S. policy might soften after the Democratic Party victory in congressional elections last week.

The fear is that with U.S. public opinion turning against the invasion of Iraq, Mr. Bush would be less likely to take decisive military or diplomatic action against Iran.

Some analysts also think the Bush administration might be willing to end its policy of isolating Iran because of Tehran’s influence over armed groups in Iraq.

Mr. Olmert arrived in Washington with a gutted diplomatic agenda. He took office promising to pull Israel out of much of the West Bank, but shelved that plan after Israel’s summer war against Lebanese guerrillas left Israelis with little enthusiasm for territorial concessions. A poll put his approval rating at about 20 percent.

Mr. Olmert has revived the notion of negotiating with the moderate Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, but the two men have not been able to agree on an agenda or even set a date to meet.

There are expectations that while in Washington, Mr. Olmert will make small-scale moves on the Palestinian front, including proposed humanitarian aid to the Palestinian people.

Mr. Olmert told reporters he did not expect major developments during the trip. “This isn’t a dramatic visit,” Col. Eisin quoted him as saying.

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