Olmert meets with Bush, continues pushing for peace deal

Lame duck or not, Ehud Olmert is determined to make it to the finish line.

Four months after he announced his resignation and 21⁄2 months before elections are held to replace him, the Israeli prime minister insists he still expects to complete a peace agreement with the Palestinian Authority before he leaves office.

“I believe it is possible, I believe it is timely, I believe a declaration is needed,” Olmert said this week in Washington after meeting with President Bush. “I am ready to make it and I hope the other side is.”

Olmert met Nov. 24 with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley. Later that day, he met with President Bush in the Oval Office, before the two men dined with their wives, and praised him for his friendship to Israel.

Olmert rejected growing criticism over maintaining intensive diplomatic negotiations with the Palestinians even though he is a lame-duck leader.

“Talks with the Palestinians didn’t start recently,” he said. “We’ve been speaking, at senior levels, continuously since December 2006. … We’re very close and it’s time to make decisions.”

Such a declaration was imperative, Olmert said, because a “new narrative” is emerging among Palestinians that advocates for a binational state — including Israel, the West Bank and Gaza — that effectively would spell the end of the Jewish state. Israelis should “not take it for granted” that the idea won’t gain traction in the West, the Israeli leader said.

Olmert is acting as prime minister until after Feb. 10 general elections in Israel, and it could be well into March before he hands off power. Kadima party leader Tzipi Livni has said she will continue the peace process; opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu of Likud has said he will revisit the precepts of the talks.

Ron Kampeas

JTA D.C. bureau chief