Olmert to Tell Rice: U.S. Must Take Lead on Iranian Nukes

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told visiting members of the Senate Armed Services Committee yesterday that "for the first time in my life I feel that there is an existential threat against the state of Israel."

Olmert will reiterate this message when he meets Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice today. Rice is due to arrive today for a visit to Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

Olmert is expected to stress in talks with Rice that the United States must play a central role in countering the threat posed by Iran and its nuclear ambitions.

Rice will meet Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in the evening, after a meeting with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah.

Tomorrow, Rice will meet Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Defense Minister Amir Peretz, and then is expected to leave Israel - possibly for an unscheduled visit to Beirut.

Rice is visiting Israel following a meeting yesterday in Cairo with the foreign ministers of six Gulf States, Egypt and Jordan, in a mini-summit that was meant to coalesce moderate Arab states in the region.

At the end of the summit, Rice called for the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

This is the first meeting of this forum, which has raised many questions among Arab states regarding its purpose. "This is not a coalition against anybody," said Rice.

The Egyptian foreign minister, Ahmed Abul Gheit, said that no differences of opinion emerged during the meeting, since all the participants are friendly states.

"Our purpose is peace in the region, stability and development. The aim is the establishment of a Palestinian state," he added.

During her meeting with Abbas in Ramallah today, Rice is expected to discuss Palestinian unity government talks.

Rice will impress upon the Palestinian leader that the U.S. is firm on the three conditions posed by the Quartet in return for recognition of any such government. These include the recognition of Israel, the relinquishing of violence and the acceptance of accords previously signed between Israel and the Palestinians.

Rice's tour of the region takes place amid growing criticism regarding her conduct as National Security Adviser in the Bush administration, prior to 9/11. A new book by Bob Woodward of the Washington Post suggests that she ignored a warning that Al-Qaida planned to carry out a major terrorist attack on U.S. soil.

According to political sources in Jerusalem, there were reservations among administration insiders whether Rice should visit Israel and the Palestinian Authority at a time when the main purpose of her tour of the area is to foment a unified front of moderates in the Middle East against Iran.

These views stemmed from the assessment that the current political climate on the Israeli-Palestinian front is not conducive to any talks or a breakthrough.

However, the conclusion was that skipping over Jerusalem and Ramallah would be perceived negatively among the same moderates, at a time when the U.S. is trying to restore confidence in its regional role.

Rice and Israel's leadership are expected to discuss the Iranian threat, the implementation of Security Council Resolution 1701 in Lebanon, and the problematic domestic situation in the Palestinian Authority.

According to political sources in Jerusalem, it will be difficult to seriously discuss "steps for strengthening the position of Abbas" at a time when there are violent clashes between Fatah and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

Judging from statements made by Olmert in a meeting with visiting members of the Senate Armed Services Committee in Jerusalem yesterday, Israel, like the Bush administration, is focused on Iran.

The senators informed Olmert of their visit to Jordan and stressed the need for the formation of a "coalition of moderates," in the region against the threat of a more powerful Iran.

During a meeting with Peretz, the senators were interested to hear about ways in which the results of the Lebanon war could affect the situation in Iraq.

Peretz stressed the difference between "facts and symbols."

"Obviously the fact is that we have an advantage. Hezbollah paid dearly, and will consider very carefully before attacking Israel again," he told the visiting senators.