Olmert: Bush and I Are in Full Agreement on How to Confront Iran

Bush says PM's plan 'important step' but prefers negotiated two-state solution; president praises Abbas, slams Hamas, and says U.S. would come to Israel's aid in event of attack.

WASHINGTON - There is full agreement between Israel and the U.S. on how to confront the Iranian nuclear issue, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told Israeli journalists early Wednesday, hours after his White House meeting with U.S. President George W. Bush. (Click here for analysis by Aluf Benn)

"We extensively discussed the Iranian issue," Olmert said. "There is a full understanding between the president and myself on how to deal with this matter."

Olmert said he was "very satisfied" with the discussion he held with Bush on Iran.

Olmert said he believes Iran will cross "the technological threshold" on its path to nuclear capability in about a year.

Speaking earlier at a joint press conference with Bush following after an initial round of talks the two held as part of his first visit to Washington as prime minister, Olmert expressed concern over Iran's nuclear ambitions, insisting that it was not too late to prevent the Islamic republic's atomic program.

Olmert called Iran a threat to the entire Middle East. "This is a moment of truth. It is still not too late to prevent it from happening," he said.

Addressing the Iran nuclear issue, Bush told reporters that the aim to prevent Tehran from obtaining nuclear weapons was "a common international goal."

"We determined that the Iranian regime must not obtain nuclear weapons," he said.

The president declared that the United States would "come to Israel's aid" in the event of an attack, an indirect reference to Iran, which Tuesday tested another long-range surface-to-surface "Shihab-3" missile. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad last year called for Israel to be "wiped off the map," and in April called the country a "rotten, dried tree" that would be annihilated by "one storm."

Bush said that his administration was still pursuing a diplomatic solution to the issue. "Obviously we'd like to solve this issue peacefully and diplomatically, and the more the Iranians refuse to negotiate in good faith the more countries are beginning to realize that we must continue to work together," Bush said.

"We're spending a lot of time working with our Russian friends in particular to make it clear to them that Iran is showing no good faith," the president told reporters.

Russia and China, permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, have been reluctant to impose stronger measures, such as sanctions, on Iran. "We're on the cusp of going to the Security Council," Bush said.

Tuesday's Iranian missile test was viewed by Israeli and Western officials as an example of Iranian defiance of international efforts to halt its nuclear program and impose sanctions.

The "Shihab-3" has a known range of 1,300 kilometers and could reach any target in Israel. Iran is also in the process of developing longer-range missiles, intended to reach a distance of 5,000 miles.

Bush praises Olmert's 'bold ideas' for peaceBush hailed Olmert's plans for Middle East peace as "bold ideas" that could prove to be an "important step" leading to a two-state solution, should the process outlined in the internationally brokered road map to Middle East peace falter.

"While any final status agreement will be only achieved on the basis of mutually-agreed changes... the prime minister's ideas could be an important step toward the peace we both support," Bush said with Olmert standing at his side.

Olmert, who placed his "convergence" plan for a unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank at the center of his recent election campaign, has said he plans to remove remote settlements in the West Bank, keeping larger enclaves forever and imposing a border unilaterally if peace efforts remain frozen.

Bush stressed, however, that a negotiated two-state solution remained the preferred route to peace. "I believe Prime Minister Olmert agrees that a negotiated final status agreement best serves the Israelis and the Palestinians and the cause of peace," he said.

'No country can make peace with those who deny its right to exist'Bush also praised Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas as a leader who "speaks out for peace and negotiations," but criticized the Hamas-led Palestinian government, which he said does not seek peace. "No country can be expected to make peace with those who deny its right to exist, and who use terror to attack its population," he said.

"Hamas must recognize Israel's right to exist, must abandon terror and must accept all previous agreements between the Palestinian Authority and Israel," he added. "I assured the prime minister that our position is steady and strong - that Hamas must change."

Speaking after Bush, Olmert praised Abbas - referring to him as "president," not chairman as he has always done in the past - and said he would "exhaust" every possibility for peace. But, he added, if Israel discovered that negotiation was not possible, "we will be compelled to try a different route" - a clear reference to his plans for a unilateral withdrawal. Olmert also said he planned to complete his plans within three to four years.

While the Americans still hold out hopes that Abbas can deliver in negotiations, Olmert's comments on the Palestinian leader appear to be more a gesture to the Americans than the product of any real belief that Abbas has sufficient political clout to cut a deal with Israel. On Sunday, in an interview on CNN aired just 48 hours before his meeting with Bush, the Israeli leader referred to Abbas as a "powerless" and "helpless" leader.

If Hamas abandoned its refusal to recognize Israel and its embrace of violence, Olmert added, "they will find us a willing partner in peace." But he said Israel would not enter into an agreement with any party that refuses to recognize its right to exist. "We cannot wait indefinitely for the Palestinians to change," he said.

Olmert said that in a final status agreement, major population centers in the West Bank would be part of Israel. Asked about Olmert's assertion, Bush referred reporters to his April 2004 letter to then prime minister Ariel Sharon. In that letter, Bush wrote, "In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli populations 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."

Six to nine monthsOlmert was quoted by Israel Radio on Tuesday as saying that he would be "willing to devote six to nine months to find a Palestinian partner" before turning to his unilateral plan.

On Monday night, Olmert met for dinner with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and U.S. National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley to prepare for his talks with Bush. Earlier Tuesday he held talks with U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

A series of secret talks between the U.S. and Israel is expected to follow Olmert's visit. During these talks, elements of the convergence plan will likely be honed and translated into a practical program.

U.S. State Department envoys David Welch and Elliott Abrams are to visit Israel at the beginning of June. Rice is also expected to travel to the region, and an additional meeting between Bush and Olmert is likely as well.