WASHINGTON - Israel is asking U.S. President George W. Bush to describe to his successor, Barack Obama, the American commitment to ensure that its strategic deterrence is not compromised. The subject was the focus of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's farewell meeting in the White House on Monday with Bush and top administration officials.
"I discussed with the president and his most senior staff issues connected to the core of the special relationship between Israel and the U.S., strategic matters of the utmost importance, and the ability to preserve those ties in the coming years," Olmert told reporters Tuesday.
Top administration officials told Olmert there was no point in a presidential letter from Bush, since it would not bind Obama. The sides decided instead on a list, compiled by the White House and delivered to Obama's transition team, that reviews all understandings and agreements.
In addition to the nuclear issue, Israel is also hoping to receive promised military aid and advanced weapons systems, and to restrict the U.S. supply of advanced weapons to Arab states.
Leading Israeli officials are concerned that if the United States begins talks with Iran in an effort to halt its nuclear program and development of additional nuclear programs in the Middle East, Washington will call for restrictions on Israel's nuclear capability as well. Such concerns are heightened by the support expressed by Obama and Hillary Clinton, who is expected to be appointed secretary of state, for global nuclear disarmament, a plan raised by four top American foreign policy officials: former secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, former defense secretary William Perry and former senator Sam Nunn.
The Obama administration is expected to accelerate arms control efforts. One of the ideas being discusses it not new and caused tension between Israel and the Clinton administration.
Israel and the United States have a longtime understanding on the nuclear issue, which was reached between former prime minister Golda Meir and former president Richard Nixon in 1969. Israel promised at that time that it would hew to a policy of ambiguity. In 1977 Israel asked Kissinger, who helped formulate the nuclear understanding, to explain it to incoming president Jimmy Carter, who wanted to push arms control and nonproliferation. The nuclear understanding has been continued through successive Israeli and American leaders.
When Benjamin Netanyahu was prime minister, he requested - and received - a letter of guarantees from then-president Bill Clinton in which he promised the United States would work toward preserving Israel's strategic deterrence and make sure arms control initiatives in the Middle East would not harm Israel. Clinton sent a letter enumerating the same assurances to Netanyahu's successor, Ehud Barak.
Later, Olmert said the U.S. has not advised Israel to restrain itself from taking action it deemed necessary against Iran's nuclear program.
But the outgoing Israeli leader stopped short of making any threat to strike Iran.
"I can't recall that anyone in the [U.S.] administration, including in the last couple of days, advised me or any of my official representatives not to take any action that we will deem necessary for the fundamental security of the state of Israel, and that includes Iran," Olmert said.
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