WASHINGTON — The nuclear threat from Iran and the unmet goal of reaching an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord by year-end top President George W. Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's meeting Monday at the White House.
It will be their final one as world leaders. Bush leaves office Jan. 20 and Olmert, who announced plans to resign in September amid corruption charges, will step down after a successor is chosen Feb. 10.
Olmert had breakfast with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and national security adviser Stephen Hadley and will meet with Vice President Dick Cheney before his Oval Office discussion with Bush. Bush, Olmert, first lady Laura Bush and the Israeli prime minister's wife, Aliza, are dining privately at the White House.
"The prime minister reiterated his commitment to try to reach understandings with the Palestinians in accordance with the Annapolis principles," Olmert spokesman Mark Regev said after the prime minister's morning meetings. "He expressed his firm belief that this process must continue and that the incoming U.S. administration and next Israeli government must continue the historic process that started in Annapolis."
Other possible topics of discussion include: the global financial crisis; Israel's indirect peace talks with Syria; the future of arms and aircraft deals to Israel; deteriorating conditions in Gaza; and Israel's desire for Bush to pardon Jonathan Pollard, who is serving a life sentence for spying for Israel.
Regarding the Iranian nuclear program, Israel sees it as the biggest national security threat. Israel also has been provoked by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's repeated calls for the destruction of the Jewish state.
The U.N. Security Council has imposed three rounds of economic penalties against Iran, which insists its nuclear program is peaceful and designed to produce energy. Both the U.S. and Israel say they hope diplomatic pressure resolves the standoff, but have not ruled out military action.
A report this past week by the International Atomic Energy Agency said Iran was stonewalling attempts to monitor its nuclear activities. And intelligence assessments from Israel, obtained Monday by The Associated Press, said weakening international pressure on Iran will embolden the government to make major strides next year toward developing a nuclear bomb — something Israel thinks Iran will be capable of building by 2010.
Neither Bush nor Olmert can put an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord in their legacy book.
Just a year ago, at a summit Bush hosted in Annapolis, Md., Olmert and the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, resumed peace talks after a seven-year standstill. The three set an ambitious target to have a final peace deal by the end of 2008. But despite a lot of talk, Bush's two trips to the region and eight more by Rice, all have acknowledged the year-end target will not be met.
Bush administration officials say some progress has been made.
"We're much farther along the road than we otherwise would have been," without the Annapolis meeting, White House deputy press secretary Tony Fratto said Monday. "And I think we're much farther down the road than most people give the Palestinians and the Israelis credit for.
"Now, we do have the elections coming up in Israel, and obviously that will delay or throw off the process a bit."
Rice said Sunday that the Annapolis meeting launched robust negotiating between the parties for the first time in seven years. She said much progress has been achieved in building the institutions for the Palestinian state — security forces and the economic work of Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.
"And you have Arab support," she said. "The Saudis were at Annapolis under their own flag for the first time, and they've maintained their interest and support for this process. So I think even though there was not an agreement by the end of the year, it is really largely because of the political situation in Israel."
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