Mr. Olmert and Iran

November 14, 2006

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert couldn't have a better ally in the White House when it comes to Iran's nuclear ambitions. President Bush is as vocal - and adamant - about the threat posed by a nuclear Iran as is his counterpart from Jerusalem. Mr. Bush's position on Iran and his conditions for U.S. talks with Tehran discussed after yesterday's meeting with Mr. Olmert may be reassuring for Israelis, but they don't advance the issue. The stalemate with Iran allows Tehran to continue with its nuclear operations, which doesn't make the world safe for Israel, the U.S. or any other peace-loving nation.

Mr. Bush reiterated his firm stand as British Prime Minister Tony Blair was as strongly calling for dialogue with Iran and Syria. Mr. Blair's call had to do with the Iraq war, but it underscores the influence both countries have with insurgent and terrorist elements in the region. The problem with Iran is that it publicly refuses to give up its nuclear work and continues its very vitriolic attacks against the U.S. and Israel. If there is a way to engage the Iranians, no one - not the Europeans, the Russians or the Chinese - has found it. James A. Baker III, the co-chairman of the Iraq Study Group, has reached out to the Iranians in an informal way, and he may offer the best hope of engaging with them, if not on the nuclear question at least on Iraq.

On the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate, Mr. Olmert could offer no new initiatives or pronouncements as he did when he was last in Washington. A casualty of the Israeli-Lebanon summer war was Mr. Olmert's plan to unilaterally withdraw from the West Bank if he could not negotiate a settlement with the Hamas-led government. He and Mr. Bush reiterated their support for a two-state solution but reaffirmed their positions that the Palestinian government must recognize Israel's right to exist and reject terror. If Mr. Olmert was looking for reassurance on this score, Mr. Bush obliged him.

But their stands, while justifiable, don't address the continuing violence between Palestinian militants and the Israeli army in the Gaza Strip. The two leaders appear content to wait for the Palestinian government to change course or self-destruct.

The Palestinian Authority does need a course correction if it is to receive the international aid it needs to govern. The new choice for Palestinian prime minister, Mohammed Shabir, a U.S.-educated college administrator, may be the man to provide that self-correction. If he and other Palestinian leaders accept the basic conditions for resuming talks with Israel, Mr. Olmert - and his ally in Washington - will have to meet him halfway. Progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front would disarm Iran, depriving its leaders of their usual screed and a reason for nuclear arms.

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